Justin Bieber still doesn’t really get the credit he’s earned. The string of celebrity relationships, the bad-boy behavior, the tattoos and ever-evolving hair styles and hues — all these things have had a tendency to distract from the obvious, which is: That boy can sing. He’s a blue-eyed soul stirrer who somehow always has avoided sounding like a white guy trying to pass for black. His R&B tendencies are natural and unforced and, most importantly, never gratuitously flashy. And he’s never sounded better than he does on “Changes,” his fifth studio album.
He’s never felt better, either, from all indications. “Changes” is the sound of a reformed romantic closing the blinds to shut out the world, then spending a long weekend in bed with the object of his affection, coming up with different ways to say “You complete me.” And therein lie its limitations: For as many ways as there are to say “You complete me,” Bieber keeps skimming their surface. His voice and the production are flawless, and his soul is in the right place — but there’s something airless about the album, too, like he could have left the window open a crack to let some sunshine in. For a Valentine’s Day album about love in bloom, it sounds surprisingly serious and dark, with a one-track-mind.
In the decade since Bieber burst onto the scene, the Canadian singer-songwriter has shown demonstrable growth as both a vocalist and a recording artist, never releasing the same album twice. Over the course of five studio sets, including the 2011 holiday collection “Under the Mistletoe,” each new one has sounded entirely different from the one that preceded it. That’s partly because Bieber always has been so in step with the ever-changing pop times that each release has become a sort of sonic time capsule of the era in which it was created.\
“My World 2.0,” in 2010, was awash in the sort of happy-go-lucky pop that dominated the decade before it. “Believe” negotiated the dance sounds that were popular circa 2012 while starting his slow swerve into the R&B lane. “Purpose” kept one foot in EDM pop and the other in soul, and now, with “Changes,” Bieber goes all the way to the latter side. It’s his most unabashedly R&B album yet, steeped in the trap sound of the times and retro ’70s soul, with Bieber effortlessly gliding between a rubbery tenor and an airy falsetto.
In an age when most pop albums are created by committee, “Changes” is one of the most cohesive ones since Ariana Grande sprung “Thank U, Next” (also, interestingly, her fifth studio album) on us almost exactly one year ago. The spare, acoustic opening track “All Around Me” floats into the gently percussive “Habitual,” which floats into the springtime step of “Come Around Me,” like an extended love suite. Bieber is more concerned with setting a mood than pumping out hooks (although “Come Around Me,” an early highlight, still manages to be gooey and ear-wormy), and then “Intentions,” all jaunty, roof-down swinging, comes along and offers the closest thing to a conventional pop melody on the album.
“Yummy,” a track with a maddeningly and irresistibly repetitive hook that extols the pleasures of making love stoned (“Light a match, get litty, babe”), comes next, cementing Bieber’s new calling: a Canadian D’Angelo for white-girl Beliebers who are now old enough to understand that grown-up love doesn’t actually feel anything like “Baby,” Bieber’s early, equally repetitious hit.
This is not just a formidable soul man’s coming of age. (Bieber has apparently been listening to Khalid and taking notes.) It’s also the emergence of a brand new Bieber, a happily married 25-year-old with everything to lose. It’s no surprise that he chose to release it on the romantic holiday that he did. On the cover, he poses shirtless (naked emotions?) on a backdrop of red. Love is indeed in the air.
Bieber is truly, madly, deeply in it here, but love is more than mutual admiration. Like life, it’s messy and complicated , and so is the path that leads us there. In the five years since his last album, Bieber has taken a lot of twists and turns. There have been various romantic entanglements ( including an on-off relationship with Selena Gomez that’s still inspiring her to release sad songs that say so much), bad-boy tantrums and a near-meltdown that had Bieber canceling dates on his “Purpose” tour and quitting social media. He hints at those demons here, but never digs too deep.
Yes, there have been changes. He’s now presumably happily married to Hailey Baldwin, and if his lyrics are to be taken at face value, the redemptive power of her love is strong. “Every time I go the wrong way, you turn me back around,” he sings over plunky synths that sound like drops of water on “Forever,” later adding, “Never thought I’d settle down, I cannot lie to myself / I was busy focusin’ on bein’ by myself / Set my feelings to the side, they all got dusty on the shelf / You wiped them down when I had nothin’ left,” before Post Malone and Clever arrive to provide back-up.
It took a coterie of writers and producers to construct the songs on “Changes,” but the lyrics sound 100 percent Bieber. If the tortured-artist credo is to be believed, romantic contentedness is no state in which one should create works of art. You may end up with “Yummy” lyrics instead of the intricate wordplay of 2015’s “Love Yourself.”
But certainly, even in the throes of love, there’s more going on in Bieber’s head than “yummy, yum, that yummy, yum, that yummy, yummy.” We get the reformed romantic, but it’s not until 16 tracks in, on “At Least for Now,” that he finally steps out of his own love story and explores the stark reality and uncertainty of conscious coupling. “Never mind me watchin’ you, never mind the tension / Please excuse me while I dance, I forgot to mention I’m going on strike,” he sings over foreboding piano notes.
It’s a welcome dose of depth that comes a little too late, after nearly 45 minutes of uncomplicated declarations over slow to mid-tempo grooves. Listening to the back end of the album, after Kehlani makes her grand entrance and exit on “Get Me,” feels like the last night of that aforementioned lost weekend when your attention starts to wane, and you can’t stop thinking about going back to work in the morning.
By the end of its 51 minutes (a surprisingly short running time for 17 tracks), Bieber has drilled home the point: He’s hopelessly in love. Good for him, and for his bride. “Changes” is an album for lovers, for Valentine’s Days, and for all the candlelit evenings between them.
What’s missing is joy, an uptempo song (or two) that screams, “Yeah!” (to quote the title of the biggest hit by Bieber’s former mentor, Usher Raymond). Bieber has learned to respect the power of love, but he seems too earnest and reverential to sit back and truly enjoy it. Just when you’re thinking, OK, we get it. Now, c’mon, get happy, it’s all over.