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Justin Bieber – Changes Review

February 15, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
Justin Bieber - Changes
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Justin Bieber – Changes Review  

Justin Bieber turned public perception on its head in 2015 with the release of his fourth studio album, Purpose. The Canadian chart topper finally escaped his child star past and transcended his teenie bopper image. He was still stalked by a legion of adoring teenaged fangirls, but his new music was pleasingly adult and defiantly sexy. “Sorry” was perfectly timed to capture the dancehall wave that Drake had been riding to the top of the charts and, while the album had its highs and lows, Bieber had stumbled upon his strongest material to date at precisely the right pop cultural moment.

The hype quickly became detached from reality – as good as “Where Are U Now” and “What Do You Mean?” proved to be, much of Purpose was underwritten and fledging. The globe conquering “Love Yourself” remains, to this very day, a fabulous line in search of truly great song, but critiques matter little. Justin Bieber’s music was on rotation at all the right clubs, critics were softening their stance as his music began to surface on all the most prestigious end of year lists and the world tentatively embraced Bieber as this generation’s premier pop star.

With the exception of a bizarre spat with the Chinese Government, the interceding six years between Purpose and Changes have proved surprising sedate. The media circus that followed his omnishambolic, MJ-like, existence in the early 2010s appears to have evaporated. There have been no DUIs and no new cases of animal abuse (that we know of). Instead, Bieber has enjoyed a far more serene existence: he reconciled with his former girlfriend Hailey Baldwin and by 2019 he was a happily married man.

This might seem like a strange diversion into tabloid gossip for an album review to take, but the principle influence on Changes is without question Hailey Beiber and, more specifically, Justin’s newfound state of marital bliss. Before a single second of new music had been released, Bieber was being gentle mocked for his “wife guy” meme status, but Changes takes this charming affection to a preposterous extreme. His latest album is less a love letter and more an act of adulation and exultation to his own romantic dependence.

Pop music has a complex relationship with warm-hearted and unconditional love. Traditional unashamedly sentimental R&B has always managed to pull of this trick (largely thanks to lung-bustingly brilliant vocal performances), but popstars have often struggled. The line between vomitus cutesiness and understated reflections on a life shared is perilously thin. John Lennon mastered the aesthetic on Double Fantasy, but for all that album’s sensitivity and charm, it was decidedly uncool and leant into its “leaving the cutting edge behind” ethos. Bieber is trying to do the exact opposite.

The genuinely appalling lead single “Yummy” sets the tone. Justin wants to be a cool, sexualized, modern, post-trap popstar and he wants to be a dutifully adoring wife guy, stumbling over himself in search of increasingly clumsy metaphors to express his commitment. The problem is simple: the dead-eyed, zoned out, drugged up ambivalence of trap couldn’t be a more awkward fit alongside the painful sincerity Bieber is trying to exude. The result is music that sounds neither sordid nor sincere. So much of Changes exudes an amorphous nothingness.

Perhaps vibing is better than true articulation, because for at least half of Changes run time, Bieber indulges in some truly heinous songwriting. “All Around Me” starts promisingly enough with its carefully balanced instrumentation and dreamy swirls, but Bieber’s attempts to play post-rap bad boy obliterate any vulnerability the track may have contained. The lines, “you here for the stay down, look in the mirror you’re ripe for the take down, open up the coupe”, simply do not belong on a pseudo-ballad that sees Bieber croon: “Guess anything is possible with your help, anything is possible since you made my heart melt”.

The juxtaposition is too jarring. Perhaps a generation raised on Snapchat seductions and try-hard YouTubers will find this blend of posture and sincerity alluring, but one cannot help but undermine the other. Another strange contradiction comes in the use of Auto-tune. Kanye West famously used the studio tool to distort and warp his internal demons into gruelling sound, but it feels strangely disingenuous for Justin Bieber to sweeten his vocals on an album that is, from its artwork on down, designed to be stripped back and real. It’s a shame, because the sound of Bieber’s vocal breaking as he tries to reach an impossible high would represent a vulnerable and beautiful expression of his love, instead he opts to fake it.

“Come Around Me” is perhaps the surrealist offering. The lyric sheet is as abysmal as the beat is beautiful understated. The writing is appalling on both ends, when it’s underwritten it proves genuinely hilarious (“Do me like you miss me”), but the overwriting is something else entirely, could there be a less seductive line than “let’s get it in expeditiously”. Truth be told, as awkwardly as these lines clang, there is something almost charming about how hard Bieber and his team are trying. Monday Night Raw has more natural dialogue, but at least “I’m elated that you are my lady” has an endearingly goofy thesaurus plumbing quality.

The trouble is that the lyrics are so distracting that Bieber’s verses prove far less effective than those of his guest stars and, last time I checked, he’s the one whose married to Hailey Baldwin, not Quavo or Kehlani. The chorus of “Intentions” is perhaps the ultimate example of Bieber’s bizarre hybrid of genuine tenderness, overly wordy expression and social media posturing: “Stay in the kitchen cooking up (whip it), got ya own bread/Heart full of equity, you’re an asset/Make sure that you don’t need no mentions/Yeah, these are my only intentions”. Luckily, Quavo is on hand to clean up the track with a stunning final verse, which flourishes because every word feels plainspoken and natural coming out of the rapper’s mouth: “We gotta both admit it, it’s funny, we both listen/It’s a blessing, ‘cause we both get it”.

Quavo’s success underlines Bieber’s failure. The Migos rapper’s words feel sincere, natural and off the cuff. Bieber’s feel stage-managed, overwritten and the product of a songwriting meeting, rather than one man pouring out his feelings. Perhaps this is legitimately the way Bieber speaks, but it feels as though he’s pretending to be an R&B loverman rather than anything resembling Canada’s sweetheart. Luckily, there are moments when he leans into his chart topping impulses. “Forever” thrives (and should be a surefire hit), because Bieber ditches the dodgy attempt at dropping his guard and goes whole hog into banger territory. Funnily enough, far from making the track anodyne, the simplicity suits Beiber and he stumbles upon some of his best lines (“you still intimidate me”). Sure the pre-chorus “woah-oohs” feel desperate and at times he lazily slips into the Drizzy flow, but at least the track manages to pick up a sense of momentum. Sadly, this injection of energy is squandered by the headache inducingly mundane and underdeveloped “Running Over”, which plumbs new depths with a tiresome Lil Dicky verse.

Changes overflows with intriguing concepts that develop into torturous songs. On “Take It Out On Me” Bieber offers to be Hailey’s emotional punching bag – he’ll take the strain she unburdens her psyche (a neat little concept). Sadly, the track never goes anywhere interesting. At least it’s better than “Second Emotion”, a half-arsed, half-asleep attempt to cash in on Travis Scott’s cultural cache. The verse is occasionally intriguing, but it succumbs to yet more brain-dead posturing, a dead on arrival chorus and more painful trend chasing: “got me feeling giddy like la la la la, Struck a match, got me litty, like la la la la” – ugh.

Terrible choruses are a real problem for Changes, even as the album’s final third nearly snatches victory from the jaws of defeat with a endearing suite of stripped down and beautiful judged ballads. Unfortunately the title track, whose verse contains an intoxicating blend of pride and uncertainty, is undermined by a brutally unimaginative hook. Thankfully, it is surrounded by a host of well-judged delicacies. “Confirmation” is classic R&B. Bieber takes a simple sentiment and a bare bones lyric sheet and just vibes on his love, crooning: “take a moment to cherish this space”. Kehlani hops on board for “Get Me”, one of the album’s few genuinely sexy slow jams. The syncopated beat injects a little edge as Bieber’s high vocal swirl into the smoke before Kehlani completes a steamy harmony that’s feels so naturally entwined it is as if the pair were slow dancing in the studio when they recorded it.

The album’s best-kept secret emerges at its death. Justin Bieber is better at straight-laced, white-meat pop music than he is steamy, hyper-sexualized modernity. “That’s What Love Is” swirls around a deftly plucked Spanish guitar line and Bieber is at his absolute best as he plays it straight: “myself esteem gets too low, you lift it right up to the ceiling…yeah that’s what love is”. If only he could have learnt this lesson sooner. With less bravado, trend chasing and over-complication, Changes could have been a genuinely profound and sincere sidestep from one of pop’s leading lights.

Instead, this bold declaration of love rings hollow. Bieber’s intentions are beyond reproach, but the music is tiresome, tedious and frustratingly false. He should have learnt from John Lennon. Love and stability is its own reward. If you are determined to express it: forget about being cool and give up chasing trends. Keep it simple, sincere and unfashionably straight-laced.

4.0
The final score: review Poor
The 411
Justin Bieber sets out to write a sincere, stripped down and adoring love letter to both his wife and marital stability on Changes. Its a commendable concept, but the execution is routinely appalling. Bieber is intent to chase trends on album that is both over and underwritten. The hooks are weak and monotonous at best, while the verses bury their tender and thoughtful insights below layers of thesaurus plumbing and utterly unnatural phrasing. Were it not for a strong finish Changes would be a tiresome failure.
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