Halfway through his album playback in London this week, a jet-lagged but high-spirited Justin Bieber asked people to raise their hand if they were single. After pensively scanning the room, he said, “I’ll pray for you.”
It was received as a joke. Everyone laughed, like ‘lmao get in bitches we’re dying alone probably!’ And he smiled along, but he was being completely serious. Justin Bieber is in love, you see. He’s happily married and up for sharing, so it comes as no surprise that his new album Changes is both indebted and dedicated to his partner, Hailey. Throughout the playback he mimes along to the songs, eyes passionately closed, finger striking the air like a Swedish DJ. Otherwise he just stands there smiling, watching us as we listen. He misses Hailey, he tells us. He tries to FaceTime her, but she’s asleep. To put a finer point on things, he introduces one of the tracks with the words: [Borat voice] “my wife”.
It’s hard not to feel a little moved by all this. At 25, Justin Bieber seems genuinely happy, hopeful, grounded – a far cry from 2016, when he cancelled the final leg of his Purpose world tour and took a four year stop-gap to recalibrate. His shows at the time were becoming increasingly low-energy, as he visibly struggled to connect to the audience and accusations of miming rolled in from disappointed fans. His messaging from this era was one of mental and spiritual fatigue. "I can't be your purpose," he told 20,000 people while performing in London. “I don’t feel good when I’m there nor after,” he wrote in a disillusioned Instagram post after performing at the Billboard Music Awards. “I try to think of it as a celebration but can’t help feeling like people are rating and grading my performance.”
After spending almost his entire life in the public eye, something had to give. He took a step back from music and focused on his faith. He deleted his Instagram account and joined the 'scumbro' movement (grew his hair out); he reactivated Instagram to post photos of his new puppy and launched a clothing line with Ryan Good. Tabloid space previously taken up by increasingly chaotic controversies boasted photos of him accompanied by his guru Carl Lentz (AKA the hot pastor), visiting a Hillsong Church, or writing out Bible verses in a notepad. In September 2019, he uploaded a lengthy post to Instagram detailing his journey through a dark period of pressure, unfulfillment and self-destruction. Four years on, and Changes is the view from the other side. With mixed emotions I must announce that Justin Bieber – once a teen star, then a constantly apologising later teen star – has made a full pivot to Wife Guy.
In a way, it suits him. His bread and butter from day one has been stripped-back R&B with easy-to-ride beats and ample opportunity for vocal gymnastics, and that’s basically what Changes gives us. During the Purpose Tour you could see that he felt most at home with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, a la his origins as a child busker. But Changes plays to his interests more than his strengths. Each track is built on a simple hook or a looping beat – often ditching the ‘big’ pop choruses Justin’s so good at in favour of subtle melodies and lots of repetition (“That yummy yum, that yummy yum”, and on it goes).
That laid back pace gives his voice room to luxuriate, but the songs often fall flat. There’s no tension, no build. R&B slow jams are best when they’re really sad or graphically horny, and these are neither. He is quite literally just vibing, which is nice, but what may be perfect music for YouTube choreography leaves you with no itches to scratch. The first half is basically “God’s Plan” but without Drake's “She said do you love me…” break to provide the kick. The closest we get to lift-off is “Take It Out On Me”, a saucy bop about banging it out at the end of a stressful day. Six songs into an album that might as well be called ‘Songs To Love And Appreciate Your Spouse To’, the stakes here start to look too low.
To be fair, Changes does suffer from the weight of expectation. Purpose was, after all, an unexpected behemoth. Anyone who skipped over 2014’s Journals – a dark and intimate mixtape that proved he had range – would have been especially taken aback by his sudden transformation into a brooding adult with disappointments and regrets that resonated with teenage stans and 30-year-old critics alike.
Purpose pioneered new sound and formula that still informs chart-topping bangers today (see: Halsey’s “Without Me”), but Changes feels like it’s chasing the market he reinvented in the first place – and falling short. It’s not that the emotion isn’t there, but formulaic arrangements and wandering melodies mean it struggles to hit home in a major way. Unfortunately, there’s more poignance in the first three lines of “Mark My Words” than there is across the whole of Changes.
This album was originally conceived as ‘Journals II’ until Justin and his co-writers changed tack, feeling like they were working on a different kind of record. But Changes does sound and feel like a polished and cohesive continuation of Journals without all the experimental parts, like that song where he finds an alien in his backpack and it turns out to be Lil Wayne. There are plenty of good beats (“Intentions” ft. Quavo is one) and his voice is, as always, so delicate you could sell it in a French patisserie – but in the end Changes lands like love itself: easy to appreciate, but only significant when it’s happening to you.