The transcendent claims and catchy bops of the Purpose era ring more ambiguously now. After 16 months of concerts to support that album, with reports of his listlessness onstage, Bieber cut short his world tour. Late last year, he posted a long Instagram note sharing what he’d come to understand about the harmful psychological and even biochemical effects of becoming famous at age 13. He wrote about getting into “pretty heavy drugs” at age 19—not long before the release of Purpose—and about the high rate of mortality for child stars. The note had a rambling desperation, but it celebrated his survival thanks to the people around him, God, and his recent marriage to the model Hailey Baldwin.
Changes again broadcasts a recovery narrative. But while Purpose found an overlap between the majesty of church music and the catharsis of pop, Changes forgoes dramatic moves for pleasant numbness. Bieber croons with an emphasis on sensitive micro-inflection while his melodies make simple, swaying motions. With puttering rhythms and burbling ringtone-style keyboard lines, most songs give the sense of a Jacuzzi lit with therapeutic LEDs. In the best tracks, including “Intentions” and “Come Around Me,” Bieber’s musical roil works in nifty counterpoint to his voice. Late in the album, he gets out of the sonic bath and turns to guitar and piano, which are treated with the sort of reverb that conjures the image of an arena entirely empty of people.
Well, empty of people save one—an omnipresent “you,” some balming presence Bieber serenades. That presence might be mistaken for God or a pharmaceutical product if Bieber’s constant sex talk did not out it as Hailey. The droning single “Yummy” came off as the scribblings of a horny teen scrawling on his desk during detention; other songs describe his wife as a stick-shift driver and anatomy teacher. The more arresting image, however, is painted on “ETA,” in which he frantically texts Hailey to find out when she’ll show up to comfort him. In the outro, he learns that she’s only five minutes away, and you can finally sigh in relief. The impression given, as with so much recent music by emotionally ailing young men in pop, is of women not as individuals but as abjectly worshipped nurses.
Perhaps the depiction of marriage as medicinal will be inspirational for listeners considering popping the question to their lover. Otherwise, the uplifting content of the album amounts to hip-hop appropriation and goofiness. In place of confession, Bieber substitutes wealth brags (one “Yummy” line mentions a Lamborghini and Bieber’s own fashion line, Drew House) and T.I.-style vocab (“Let’s get it on … expeditiously”). When rappers and R&B singers (Quavo, Post Malone, Lil Dicky, Summer Walker, Kehlani, Clever) show up for features, many of them bring a level of personality and specificity that highlights Bieber’s blankness. That’s not always a good thing; in fact, the guests tend to break the tranquilizing effect of the music itself.