Fame hasn’t been particularly kind to the man they call the Biebs. Returning from a litany of personal struggles with a new album for the first time in 5 years and a slew of interviews where he seems to need to really convince the public of just how happy he is in his newfound marriage, Changes was affectionately billed as an “R&Bieber” project in a departure from his world-dominating pop anthems of the past. Seeing even his biggest haters admit that he radiated a certain kind of magnetic charisma during his last era made this a highly anticipated project for me, hoping for another massive hit that everyone could get behind. Then, of course, he dropped “Yummy” and that anticipation self-destructed. Featuring 16 nearly identical tracks as Bieber leans hard into the sleepy alt-R&B trends of the current moment, the lack of any genuine emotion behind awkward and clinical lyrics about the joys of matrimonial lovemaking really sounds like Bieber is straining to convince himself, too, that he’s finally taken the right path in life.
The project opens to the spacey and psychedelic slowly strummed guitar chords of “All Around Me,” a track that essentially sounds like Bieber doing a self-indulgent freestyle over a beat he knew would get added to the nearest “chill vibes” Spotify playlist the second he heard it. Falling off the beat a couple times and hurriedly shoehorning in syllables so he can fit in one cliché phrase or another, the track is meant to introduce the album as a full-on tribute to his wife but contains the lyric “never thought I could be loyal to someone other than myself,” which is appropriate for the remainder of the oddly aloof lyrical dedications that follow. Bieber has essentially gotten to the Drake-like point in his career where he realizes that he can fill up the lyrical space of a song with a single catchy soundbite fit for an Instagram caption and literally whatever else he wants and it’ll still sell millions, and there are a couple songs here where it feels like he essentially chose a word for the title – “Habitual,” “Intentions” – and then wrote a song around it, fitting in some clunky rhymes and filling up the rest of the space with common platitudes and sexual bars so juvenile they come across as creepy. One of the only times he idolizes anything but his wife’s physical beauty or what she can provide for him is on “Running Over” in the awful lyric “you made me laugh with personality,” like he knows he’s SUPPOSED to say it at some point but doesn’t really believe it. One of the next couple lines is “Had to get a lesson in anatomy,” because of course it is.
The sonic palette across this project is absolutely nothing new, each track opening with that same watered-down iPhone ringtone-core synth tone that echoes through car radios nationwide and the most basic and universally appealing of trap beats, removing any of the sense of fun and rhythmic surprise that his last album had. These beats are static, they arrive and never change as the forward movement of the song is placed solely on Bieber’s vocals, which can often be the biggest thing that prevents this project from being completely unlistenable. His smooth and airy delivery certainly works for the style he’s aiming for here, even if his lyrics make him sound more like an excitable 14-year-old boy than the dark and mysterious figure it calls for. “Available” is one of the better tracks in the early goings for that reason, his effortless flips into falsetto injecting some much-needed levity to a 16-track slog that takes itself far too seriously.
It’s fitting that we have Post Malone here as a feature on the track “Forever,” because most of these instrumentals come from the same inoffensive, genreless playbook that he works with, but with much less of an uncanny penchant for creating hooks. The watery synth textures and trap beats set in the back of the mix on tracks like “Come Around Me” and “Take It Out On Me” can get so boring and uninspired that it honestly starts to make me wonder if I actually might like the upbeat and dynamic instrumental of “Yummy,” which is definitely still an absolute nightmare of a track due to, well, everything else it embodies. I’ll never hear the word the same way. Quite a few ideas here are pretty shamelessly lifted from other places, most eye-rollingly obviously on the track “E.T.A.,” which sounds pretty decent until you realize the instrumental is copy-pasted from Khalid’s “Location,” and Bieber didn’t even care enough to make the subject matter of the song about literally anything other than waiting at home for your special someone to arrive. The features don’t do much to help either, with Travis Scott lending one of his most phoned-in takes of all time over a beat that sounds eerily similar to Frank Ocean’s “In My Room” on “Second Emotion” and comedic rapper Lil Dicky inexplicably being present at all, his sexual jokes not sounding all too different to Bieber’s straight-faced quips.
Some of the final tracks venture into more of an acoustic territory and are actually easily the best material here, Bieber finally sounding somewhat authentic as he takes the rawer instrumentals as an opportunity to emote a bit more with his vocal delivery. The track “Confirmation” actually begins with a false start that helps with that sense of realness, Bieber dropping some great harmonies as he looks forward to the rest of his life. “That’s What Love Is” sees him singing over a plucked acoustic pattern and nothing else with some of his most heartfelt dedications and melismatic vocals of all, though some of the lyrics seem to suggest that he’s singing about his faith in line with the religious themes briefly touched on earlier in the album.
Don’t get me wrong, you can absentmindedly nod your head to almost every song here, but this project is essentially nearly devoid of both musical innovation and Bieber having anything interesting to say. I’m glad he’s happy and seems to have found a refuge from everything that’s been plaguing him over the years, but it sure doesn’t translate to engaging music.
Favourite Tracks: That’s What Love Is, Available, Confirmation
Least Favourite Track: Yummy