The pop star returns with a grown-man, R&B album about domestic love that has all the glow and eroticism of an airport terminal.
At some point in the endless world tour supporting his 2015 album Purpose, Justin Bieber stared into a sea of fans and pleaded with them to quiet down. “When you guys are screaming… it’s hard for me,” he muttered, pacing in front of his own JumboTron double in the opening montage of his new promotional documentary Seasons. In 2017, he canceled the remaining 14 dates of his tour. His team cited “unforeseen circumstances,” and for a while, the Bieber machine fell eerily silent.
Now, as it fires back up again, his management is busily filling in the blanks. In one episode of the docuseries, Bieber discusses the severity of his former drug use; he smoked weed for the first time at age 13, he tells us, and by the time he entered his 20s, he had progressed to pills and lean: “My security… were coming into the room at night to check my pulse,” he admits. He also discusses his struggles with anxiety and his diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease. “No one’s ever grown up in the history of humanity like Justin Bieber,” his manager Scooter Braun adds.
At the center of this whirlwind lies Changes, his first album in four years. On it, Bieber returns to us a wiser man—the emphasis, here, strenuously, on “man.” As of 2018, he is happily married to Hailey Bieber, née Baldwin, model and daughter of Stephen. Bieber is newly sober, newly wed. Now is the time for stubbly beards stroked fondly, for wry smiles at the memories of youthful folly, for a sharp decline in public-urination incidents. But above all, now is time for sex. More precisely, for love-making, of the most grown-up and responsible variety—no giggling, constant eye contact. His fifth studio album is pitched as an invitation to bask in Bieber’s newfound domestic bliss, but while his contentment might be heaven for him and his managers, the resulting album has all the glow and eroticism of an airport terminal.
Bieber recorded Changes mostly with his main writing collaborator Poo Bear and Josh Gudwin, his trusted producer and engineer. Without the animating presence of someone like Skrillex (who helmed six songs on 2015’s Purpose), Changes settles into a middle-distance, stream-friendly murmur that is more sleepy than salacious. Its 16 songs (plus a remix) are all cold angles and frictionless surfaces, devoid of intimacy and heat. Married-sex songs can be some of the most provocative: see “Rocket” or “Partition” from Beyoncé’s self-titled album for a few minutes’ evidence. But the language here is off-putting and sanitized, and the music has none of the bright syncopation or rhythmic surprise of the Purpose singles.
Nearly every song on Changes resembles every other in tempo, arrangement, and often in lyrics, which seem to be sourced from the same 10 or 15 pastel candy hearts. Some lines would be fascinating in their distance from human communication (“Let’s get it in expeditiously,” he proposes on “Come Around Me”) if they weren’t so dull (“Shout-out to your mom and dad for makin’ you/Standin’ ovation, they did a great job raisin’ you,” he bleats on “Intentions”).
As that last line hints, there is a creepy patriarchal blankness to the devotion displayed here. In Seasons, Hailey is almost exclusively discussed in terms of what she provides for Justin: “She loves her man…. She’s so caring, so giving, so loyal,” says Braun. “If I could handpick a girl from the stars, it would be Hailey,” his manager Allison Kaye insists. That kind of anti-erotic ownership language permeates Changes and is never quite as pointedly apparent as when Bieber sings “Heart full of equity, you’re an asset” right after an ill-advised reference to “the kitchen” on “Intentions.”
Now, Hailey and Justin have entered into marital communion—and they’d like you to know that they enter into it eagerly, and often. If Bieber whispering “You got that yummy yum” doesn’t make you want to dart away like a cat up a tree, maybe his ecstasy over “the way you motion, motion in my lap” will do it. Changes is a baby-making album if you find Lil Dicky ogling underage girls on Instagram and rapping, “I’ll kiss your breasts all tenderly, what’s up,” stimulating. It is a celebration of marriage if you consider “Do you wanna look at me forever?” an acceptable proposal. On “Habitual,” Bieber sings, “Flowers open when they feel the sunlight,” a sentiment which is really only a few degrees removed from The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian catchphrase, “Blessed be the fruit/May the Lord open.”
In fairness, some of this language might result from the whittled-down phrasing, which seeks to emulate current pop/R&B trends. This truncated, staccato delivery generally suits outsized performers, who can fill a vacuum left by song structures with their personality, with their quirks, with their wit. Putting it mildly: personality, quirks, and wit are not Bieber’s strengths. He is a traditional entertainer, a people-pleaser who works best as the wholesome center of a wilder party. “Sorry,” his biggest-ever hit, placed a rowdy dancehall beat behind old-fashioned eight-bar melodies; the top line was as bright as it was sophisticated, and Bieber sounded at home. Lost in the midtempo grayscale of Changes, he suffers from a terminal wholesomeness that loops back around to unsettling.
Scattered bright spots come from guests—on “Forever,” Post Malone injects his destabilizing energy, singing with the urgency of someone in dire need of a bathroom. Kehlani’s appearance on “Get Me” enlivens the muted, Noah “40” Shebib-type beat. Otherwise, the only appealing moments appear in the last third, when Bieber sings over minimal accompaniment. “That’s What Love Is” features nothing but an acoustic guitar, capo’d high and twinkling like a music box. The words redefine “sweet nothings” (“Don’t nobody else deserve my eyes,” he avows) but they dissolve in the sunlight of Bieber’s falsetto. The way he capers between chest and head voice is effortless and dazzling, like watching a figure skater land triple lutzes, one after the other. For exactly two minutes and forty-five seconds, the joy he takes in his talent is palpable.
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