Justin Bieber, the pop star who was the butt of every joke made about young teen stars making manufactured music, who then went on to be the butt of every joke about being a spoilt delinquent teenager who had too much too early in his life, before ‘Officially retiring’ at 19, has returned. It’s only been a couple of years since he left us (although it never feels like he left at all) but it’s been enough time for the media to paint us this big narrative of redemption and they’re making out that this album is Justin Bieber coming full circle, despite the fact that he still does moronic things regularly. All it took was a Roasting on Comedy Central – which is now refered to as some sort of exorcism – and a very good smash hit, ‘Where Are U Now?’ curated by Diplo and Skrillex.
Skrillex and Diplo’s formula that they used on that song has been the basis of Justin Bieber’s comeback into music, it ushered in a whole load of new fans who would have previously turned their nose up at Bieber’s music. Despite the fact that ‘Believe’ and ‘Journals’ were a big shift away from the Pop that made him big in the first place, the release of that single has seen people unashamedly supporting Bieber and taking his music seriously. When listening to the singles in the buildup to this album this isn’t surprising, the first three songs he’s released have all shown a tremendous growth in terms of style and delivery. ‘Sorry’, ‘What Do You Mean?’ and ‘Where Are U Now?’ show Bieber taking control of his vocals and toning them down when necessary, unlike a lot of his previous material. The production on these tracks are brilliant as well. Skrillex has production credits on six of the songs on this album, and he shows off the fact that he is talented when it comes to being an off the wall Pop producer. The singles that preceded this album were filtered through this tropical euphoric lense that’s never been captured on Bieber songs before.
The first half of this album takes this formula to great places, the opening track ‘Mark My Words’ marries Bieber’s vocals with low-key production including sparse piano keys, yet the main focus of the song is the way in which the vocals are manipulated into the beat of the song. The following song, ‘I’ll Show You’ has Bieber taking his balladeer persona that he so regularly sports and throwing it into an Electronic Pop setting and it totally works mostly down to the fact that his vocals hit the right notes (It’s always been difficult to question how good a singer he is) and the songwriting is good enough that his vocal melodies don’t contrast against the production.
After the album’s first half is over, the problem becomes the fact that ‘Purpose’ fails to hit any of the spots that made the first half so good. Bieber sinks back into the habit of making ballads that are meant to provoke an emotional reaction, but give us very little reason to become attached. Bieber tries to sound as emotive as he can on songs like ‘No Pressure’ and ‘Life Is Worth Living’ and he completely forgets that the subtlety and control that he had on the singles prior to the album made them surprisingly good for so many people. Bieber resorts to tightening his throat whenever he feels he should be saying something of importance, he merely emulates emotion instead of embodying it.
Instrumentally and song-writing wise, ‘Purpose’ is never flat-out bad, but it doesn’t provoke as much of a reaction like the first half does. There aren’t actually that many piano ballads on this album, yet the tracklist feels like they’re clogged up with them down to the fact that they’re so stagnant and dull when they’re on. Not only that but some of the more upbeat moments on the album fall flat like the song ‘No Sense’, which is like a joyless alternate take of ‘Confident’ from his mixtape ‘Journals’. Things do pick up a bit with the song ‘The Feeling’ with Halsey, as the pairs’ vocals work together brilliantly, but even many of the bonus tracks feel like they should have replaced some of the latter songs on the album such as the cringe-inducing ‘Children’, which sounds like cheap EDM with the lyrical purpose os trying to sound socially conscious.
It’s not just on ‘Children’ that the lyrics stick out like a sore thumb either. For an album that’s supposedly about redemption, reflection and forgiveness, Bieber tries to make himself out to be the victim on way too many of the tracks on here, including the best ones. On the song co-written by Ed Sheeran, ‘Love Yourself’, Bieber isn’t singing about self-love but is instead singing pettily about an ex-lover who did him wrong with the lyric ‘If you like the way you look so much, maybe you should go and love yourself’ – even the best song on the album ‘Sorry’ has Bieber sounding bitter about being hurt by someone. On the song ‘I’ll Show You’ he talks of fame and about how his ‘life is a movie’, yet he never gives his audience – outside of the fandom – a proper reason to feel sorry for him and to relate to him. It’s almost like someone apologising while making it all about themselves, and it’s where Bieber fails as a songwriter. These songs mark a maturation for Bieber in terms of sonic quality, but in terms of subject matter he’s made this entire thing sound adolescent and bratty. Strnagely enough, this isn’t something that’s actually been a problem in his lyrics before.
In the build up to ‘Purpose’, people were continually comparing Bieber’s transformation to that of Justin Timberlake’s after he went solo post – N-Sync. While it’s not that farfetched of a comparison, ‘Purpose’ is not the 180 spin transformation that everyone wanted, yet it’s not a terrible album either. It’s an album with some of Bieber’s best material to date on it being sold as what might be his magnum opus. It’s not his magnum opus, that may still be to come, he’s still got more transformation in him.
Best Tracks: Sorry, What Do You Mean?, Where Are U Now?