Justin Bieber, Still Seeking a Sound

4 weeks ago
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His sixth album, “Justice,” tries out several production styles, but never nails a mood.

It is with some awkwardness — confusion? — that I must inform you that the first voice you hear on the new Justin Bieber album, “Justice,” is Martin Luther King Jr.’s.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King returns mid-album, on an interlude that samples a speech about how a life without conviction and passion is no life at all, which is absolutely true.

King’s calls to action are, indisputably, powerful — they should be heard widely. And yet, as a framing device for an album by the 27-year-old pop star, they feel unanchored: a Big Gesture in search of equivalently ambitious commitment — political, spiritual, emotional, even musical — to bolster it.

It only calls attention to the persistent underlying conundrum with all things Bieber, which is that despite some indelible hits, his fame vastly outpaces his catalog, and that throughout his career — in ways overt or reluctant, destructive or self-protective — he has never rested in one place for very long, nor sought to make a case for his own particularity.

That’s why his last album, “Changes,” full of medium-stakes R&B well-suited to his lightly silky voice, was one of his most successful. It wasn’t a runaway triumph, but it was coherent and soothing, and notably free of baggage. It was also a reminder that perhaps Justin Bieber the musician and performer isn’t actively interested in — or an especially good fit for — the scale of song ordinarily mandated for someone as popular as Justin Bieber the celebrity.

The disorganized, only sporadically strong “Justice,” though, feels like a slap on the wrist to “Changes,” or the version of Bieber it nurtured. Rather than settle for one groove, this album shuttles between several: quasi new wave, Christian pop, acoustic soul, and many more. Bieber’s sixth studio album, “Justice” is full of songs that feel like production exercises lightly spritzed with some Eau de Bieber, the musical equivalent of merchandise.

A host of guest features serve as opportunities to try on different guises, with varying levels of success. The production of “Love You Different,” with the dancehall rapper Beam, nods wanly to the Caribbean, but nowhere near as effectively as Bieber’s 2015 smash “Sorry.” The Nigerian star Burna Boy appears on “Loved by You,” but Bieber doesn’t match his guest’s casual gravitas.

“Die for You” is perhaps the most ambitious stylistic collision here. An up-tempo, synthetic duet with the upstart pop slacker Dominic Fike, it harks back to the mid-1980s, but Bieber isn’t the sort of power singer who can outperform the flamboyance of the production. The same is true on “Unstable,” with the Kid Laroi, the Australian singer-rapper who’s adept at a post-Juice WRLD whine — Bieber sings earnestly and plainly, while his partner leans into the anguish.

Of the collaborations, by far the most successful is “Peaches,” a sun-dappled and slinky R&B number — featuring the rising stars Daniel Caesar and Giveon — that finds Bieber at his most vocally flexible (though he was in even better form when he debuted this song, solo, on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert).

More often, though, “Justice” attempts to impose big-tent pop onto Bieber — the John Hughes movie chords on “Hold On,” or the runway-walk bop of “Somebody.” In places, like on “Ghost,” those impulses are at least leavened with acoustic guitar, and the shift in his singing is notable — he goes from accent piece to main character.

Lyrically, “Justice” focuses on songs about triumph over regrettable behavior, about preaching devotion to a more powerful entity — a wife, a God — who didn’t abandon you in a time of need. “You prayed for me when I was out of faith/You believed in me when ain’t nobody else did/It’s a miracle you didn’t run away,” he sings, pointedly, on “As I Am.”

At the end of the album is “Lonely,” the moving piano ballad he released last October that felt like the cleanest break with his former self that he’d ever committed to song. These songs are Bieber at his most self-referential, his least cluttered and also his strongest — they book end a steady, intimate sentiment running through an album that does everything it can to distract from it.

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NYT > Arts > Music

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