Music

Justin Bieber Grows Up On ‘Changes’ – But Has His Music Grown With Him?

Though Justin Bieber’s voice and melodic sensibility are unmistakable, they can’t make up for his awkward lyrics and apparent lack of musical ambition.

justin bieber changes review photo

In the last half-year or so, it’s been hard not to fear the worst about Justin Bieber’s music.

His inexplicably corny contribution to the ‘bad guy’ remix made him seem like a fossil next to Billie Eilish, who’s young enough to have been a childhood Belieber. He guested on Dan + Shay’s ‘10,000 Hours’, a sappy, calculated country ballad that you’ll grit your teeth through at weddings for years to come.

And ‘Yummy’, the lead single from his fifth studio album Changes, is still a mediocre song, and an even worse attempt at a meme. Though Bieber’s voice and melodic sensibility are unmistakable, they can’t make up for his awkward lyrics and apparent lack of musical ambition. So, what’s been going on?

Bieber’s public rebranding from repentant bad boy to wife guy, in the wake of his 2018 marriage to Hailey Baldwin, has been perplexing to some and wilfully uncool to others. But, after eleven oft-chaotic years in the spotlight, it’s hard to fault him for craving stability in his personal life. Despite the inevitable stream of hot takes and tabloid headlines it’ll inspire, Changes, released on Valentine’s Day, feels like an album made for an audience of one.

Opening with the angelic clean-guitar strums of ‘All Around Me’, Justin sings a confessional that could double as a set of wedding vows: “Never thought I could ever be loyal/To someone other than myself/Anything’s possible since you made my heart melt.”

It’s a grand gesture that, through Justin’s voice, still feels intimate — even if he’s now singing to a specific person, not an enrapt audience of tween girls. On ‘Habitual’, he croons his way through some surprisingly poetic imagery: “Flowers open when they feel the sunlight/Moonrise, tide change, right before our eyes/We’re each other’s vice.” It’s a low-key start to a low-key album. If you’re wondering when the beat will drop, it never comes.

Though Bieber’s voice and melodic sensibility are unmistakable, they can’t make up for his awkward lyrics and apparent lack of musical ambition.

Many of these songs feel one-note, starting and ending in the same place. Unlike the megahits from his 2015 album Purpose, there isn’t the slightest attempt to redefine or expand the current sound of pop. But largely thanks to Bieber’s main collaborator, producer Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, each instrumental feels rich and textured.

Across the album’s 17 songs and 51 minutes, there’s a loose formula: trap hi-hats groove against reggaeton-tinged drums, swirling electric pianos and flutes, and bubbly synth arpeggios —punctuated by the occasional guitar-driven track. They’ll slot into top 40, lite-trap, chill R&B, and acoustic coffeehouse playlists equally well — yet this is easily Bieber’s most focused album. Changes will sound far too subdued for some, but if you can get in its zone, it’s mesmerising. It almost has the airy, soothing quality of a ’90s Janet Jackson album.

Justin Bieber has always been an R&B singer at heart; his voice is far better at drawing you in than belting outwards. He’s never sang more comfortably than he does here, recorded close enough that you can hear the air move across his microphone. And he’s finally grown into his full adult voice; his control and delivery are more sophisticated even than on Purpose. He’s rarely been a flashy singer, but ‘Come Around Me’ provides the first of a few stunning vocal moments — when he ascends into his falsetto range, you wish he’d stay there forever.

Changes is at its worst whenever it breaks that sense of intimacy, going for more obvious attempts at hip-hop crossover appeal. Travis Scott and Quavo are fine enough on ‘Second Emotion’ and ‘Intentions’, but Post Malone mansplains his insecurities on the otherwise sweet ‘Forever’.

The rising SoundCloud rapper Ski Mask the Slump God recorded a fiery verse for ‘Running Over’, but was replaced by Lil Dicky, who delivers the worst verse of the 2020s so far: “I got all up on your IG and was scrollin’ down for hours/I got back to 2015 and you started lookin’ young, so I stopped!” You can blame Scooter Braun, his and Justin’s shared manager, for that one.

Justin’s the one doing most of the singing, but you can’t help but wish he’d make more space for a feminine perspective within his songs. Kehlani’s guest verse on ‘Get Me’ elevates it to the album’s best track; their spark evokes some of Purpose’s romantic tension. Summer Walker even improves the ‘Yummy’ remix that closes the album — a miracle if there ever was one.

Many of these songs feel one-note, starting and ending in the same place.

Ironically, you won’t learn much about Hailey, Justin’s muse, from listening to 17 songs devoted to her. Curiously, Changes is rarely confessional in the way big pop albums are now expected to be. Bieber’s lyrics don’t tell you half as much about his, or Hailey’s, point of view as recent albums by Halsey, Ariana, Taylor, or his equally famous ex Selena Gomez — who painted a damning portrait of their relationship in last year’s “Lose You to Love Me.” For better or worse, Bieber hasn’t offered a public response.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a recent A-list pop album with less internal conflict. Changes only occasionally alludes to Bieber’s connections to evangelical Christianity, but those principles –especially the concept of godliness within marriage — gird the entire album. In Bieber’s eyes, love and commitment are a redemptive force — but his transformation doesn’t happen across the album. He’s not singing about the process of maturing, or grappling with his feelings in real-time.

Changes treats all that therapy stuff as backstory. It assumes you’ve read the celebrity profiles, watched his documentary series. There’s a sense that he’s saying “do as I do, not as I’ve done.” And yet… it’s mostly convincing?

In 2017, after watching Bieber sleepwalk through his blockbuster Purpose Tour, I called him “distant, intimate, inscrutable, fascinating.” There are still unanswered questions, but that cognitive dissonance is more or less gone. When he performs ‘Intentions’ on the Tonight Show, earnestly singing lines like “Shout-out to your mom and dad for makin’ you/Standin’ ovation, they did a great job raisin’ you,” he looks happier than he’s been in a public appearance in years. He almost sounds like the Justin of 2011, before he was weighed down by fame. Moustache aside, he has a boyish — not rogueish — charm.

So has Justin Bieber really changed? That’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s impossible to objectively assess this album — you’ll either retch at the thought of this many sentimental love songs, or be receptive enough to let it sink in.

One thing’s for sure — Justin Bieber, the man, has aged far better than most of his music from a decade ago. Teen pop has value; it can be a safe and healthy outlet for young people to express themselves. But you have to wonder, were his own expectations warped by his black-and-white puppy love songs? If Justin Bieber’s really grown up, let’s hope it’s for good.


Richard S. He is 1/2 of Melbourne pop duo ELLE, and an award-winning journalist. Tweet your grievances to @rsh_elle.

Photo Credit: Joe Termini