“I was a good kid,” recalls Justin Bieber of his tumultuous pre-fame youth, “but I was still, like, a shithead.” It sounds so sweet, so winsome, so relatable, so melodious, when he says it.
This admission occurs midway through Justin Bieber: Seasons, the embattled pop star’s ongoing (and otherwise quite dull) YouTube docuseries to promote his somewhat dull (but still quite winsome) new album Changes, in the striking 15-minute episode that addresses his post-fame shithead behavior and what might’ve inspired it. (Fame, mostly, but also lean, pills, molly, and ’shrooms.) “When he turned 18, it started bubbling a little bit,” recalls superstar manager Scooter Braun of the heel turn flawlessly executed by the mop-haired, permanently underaged Canadian sweetie who’d first conquered YouTube with a relentlessly wholesome 2010 kiddie-R&B jam called “Baby.” “Nineteen to 21, that was probably that dark period.”
To illustrate that dark period—2013 to 2015, roughly—the YouTube doc offers up montages of lurid tabloid covers and TMZ footage, including a quick, tasteful clip of our boy pissing in the bucket. Bieber’s post-shithead-era newlywed wife, the extra-winsome and clearly supernaturally patient Hailey Baldwin Bieber, marvels at her husband’s “horrible, crazy, crippling anxiety”; we learn that nowadays he’s getting regular IV infusions to repair his brain’s pleasure centers and has been diagnosed with both Lyme Disease and the Epstein-Barr virus. “Antidepressants help me get outta bed in the morning” is a thing he says; “Mental health is so important to get on top of” is another thing he says, lounging thoughtfully in the giant zip-up oxygen chamber his wife tenderly zips him into.
This is all, to repeat, album promo. Changes, out last Friday, is of course not Bieber’s Apology Album. That was the last one, 2015’s peppy EDM travelogue and yep-I-was-a-shithead confession booth Purpose, which featured a stupendous and gargantuan tropical-house smash literally called “Sorry” and inspired an endless, exhausted, and increasingly worrisome world tour that featured our boy singing/languishing in both a cage and a see-through Lucite box, which barely qualifies as a metaphor. (The YouTube series picks up in 2017 as Bieber cancels the last 14 dates of that tour after concern for what Braun described at the time as “a man’s soul and well-being.”) Bieber, by even his early 20s, had slogged through several lifetimes of tiresome loutishness, and so, in observing and/or aggregating this behavior, had his biggest fans and his most ardent haters alike.
Changes, then, is both Bieber’s honeymoon album (he and Baldwin first married, in secret, in 2018) and his sunset-of-the-spotlight album, intimate but deliberately impersonal, lovey-dovey and languid, erotic and even more exhausted. It consists entirely of vapid (but quite winsome) love songs with a vaporous electro-R&B pulse so faint as to cause concern, and he sings them all beautifully, lithe and playful and carefree and half-awake at best. It ain’t Frank Ocean, but he’s at least got good enough taste to aspire to the somnolent grandeur of Frank Ocean.
The challenge, to the extent Changes is designed to challenge our hero at all, is to see how dorky Bieber’s lyrics can get while still sounding elegant, heartfelt, melodious, and remotely dignified. You’d be surprised! “Keep running over me with your loving,” begins the chorus to the dainty “Running Over,” which is indeed the “run me over with a truck” meme recast as a mushy ode to his young bride. “Stay in the kitchen cookin’ up, got your own bread / Heart full of equity, you’re an asset,” he purrs on the vaguely pop-adjacent “Intentions”; “Say I’m number one on your to-do list” he (gently) wails amid the gorgeous snow-globe piano trills of “Available.” What you can say after a month’s continued exposure to the lovely but aggressively vacuous lead single “Yummy” is that it is extremely indicative of this record as a whole, a doofy eye-roller dedicated sincerely to (our smitten young groom insists) a bona fide toe-curler. Congrats. Also: yuck.
It’s all awfully sweet; it’s also, yes, kind of gross. (Bieber has helpfully clarified that he and Baldwin are a Netflix-and-chill couple, emphasis not on the Netflix.) Changes mixes in a few crossover-minded pop stars (Post Malone, Quavo, Travis Scott), but it’s a defiantly low-key R&B record at heart, in the proud tradition of his critic-beloved 2013 collection Journals, whose best song was the slurring and breathy “PYD,” costarring [checks notes] [God dammit] R. Kelly. This new record’s pretty-splendid back half is devoted to extra-laid-back guitar jams with increasingly skeletal arrangements: “That’s What Love Is” has the best riff, “E.T.A.” has the best coffeeshop-blues tone, and “Changes” has what amounts to the album’s thesis statement, which is “Though I’m goin’ through changes / Don’t mean that I change.” What a weird way to put it. But then again, it would be hard to make I swear I’m not a shithead anymore sound melodious.
In 2020, Justin Bieber is simply a honey-voiced and roguishly charming young man with a blushing young bride and a zip-up oxygen chamber and a profound urge to put his bad boy years behind him, and his I’m putting my bad boy years behind me years as well. He’s a pop star by default, but one with a dwindling interest in both stardom and, well, pop. The tension and the central spark of his biggest hits to date have been his fraught relationship with celebrity, with his tabloid-roiling worst instincts, with his unending loop of degradation and redemption. On Changes he just sounds like a dazed newlywed, far older or at least far more fatigued than his 25 years, content to very slowly power down his megastardom so as to spend more time with his radiant new supermodel wife and his goofy new clothing line.
Changes has remarkably low stakes for such a high-stakes individual; starting in May, it will be supported, naturally, by a lengthy and probably ill-suited (musically and otherwise) stadium tour. I wish him well. He’s a good kid. Along with all the other stuff.