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Review: Justin Bieber is a love-struck R&B bro on the very chill 'Changes'

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The most striking image in "Seasons" -- the thinly veiled 10-part commercial that Justin Bieber has been rolling out piecemeal on YouTube ahead of Friday's release of his fifth studio album -- is the sight of the 25-year-old pop superstar zipping himself into an enormous oxygen chamber.

Proof (if you needed it) that pop superstars are nothing like the rest of us, it's a blunt visual expression of what the docuseries makes clear in plenty of other ways: Bieber, scarred from the experience of global celebrity, is in deep need of protection. Again and again, we see the people around him -- his wife, Hailey Baldwin; his manager, Scooter Braun; his onetime "swagger coach," Ryan Good -- doing all they can to create a kind of safe space around Bieber, who talks frankly in the show about having his nervous system wrecked by too much money, too many drugs, too much adulation.

The singer makes yet another cocoon for himself on "Changes," a low-key set of gentle electro-R&B jams that depicts his relationship with Baldwin as a refuge from the unkind world he's still not quite ready to reenter. Long on clean-toned guitars and drowsy soul grooves -- and many, many words about the love of a good woman -- it represents a distinct shift from the throbbing EDM of Bieber's last album, 2015's "Purpose"; its stylistic consistency is a change, too, from the dabbling that Bieber did between LPs in far-flung collaborations with Luis Fonsi, David Guetta, Dan + Shay and others.

Yet R&B has always been where Bieber -- who, don't forget, came up under the tutelage of Usher -- goes for comfort and redemption. At times "Changes" recalls "Journals," the intimate collection of digital singles he released in 2013, at the end of a year in which his paparazzi exploits (including his novel use of a restaurant's mop bucket) put a serious dent in his popularity. Chief among the studio wizards here? Poo Bear, who also worked behind the scenes on "Journals."

For all the personal stability it seems to reflect, though, the question this very chill -- and often very pretty -- album poses for Bieber is how dedicated he is to reclaiming his spot at the center of pop. Sure, there are on-trend trap drums sprinkled here and there; sure, Post Malone and Travis Scott put in streaming-bait guest spots. But "Changes" mostly feels like a willful retreat from a scene that demands instant engagement.

 

Which you'd say was precisely the point if Bieber weren't headed out on a stadium tour in May. How these songs play in those spaces is anyone's guess. Hopefully the guy brings along his oxygen chamber.

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