A year ago, the chances of Justin Bieber having any sort of comeback — commercial, tabloidal, let alone aesthetic — were pretty close to zero. Sure, he’s only been around seven years, but that’s an eternity in show business. It had been over a year since he last put out new music, even longer since his last official album. The consensus was that this former child star’s career was over; no longer in his target demographic’s age range, he found himself unable to push the same buttons as before, and was prepared to fade, slowly but honorably, from the public spotlight. Yet fast-forward a few months and here he is topping the charts again, once again king of the radio. The miracle of his new album, Purpose, out since November, isn’t that it debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, or that it sent three consecutive singles to the #1 spot on the Hot 100. I would have predicted a commercial failure myself if he weren’t making the best music of his life.
Okay, okay, that isn’t really such a grand claim given the questionable quality of his previous music. And by any reasonable standard Purpose is fairly spotty, loaded with soggy ballads and motivational speeches. Nevertheless, its juicier tunes, warmer synthesizers, increased willingness to get stuck in your head, and radical modification of Bieber as a persona make the album a startling improvement regardless of whether you considered him the cutest little teenthrob since the boy-band era; an empty corporate puppet; a profoundly unlucky and probably traumatized star deprived of an ordinary childhood; or all of the above. It’s not so implausible, really. Even when he was first starting out, back when middle-school girls were thrilling to his prepubescent squeal on YouTube, there was something generous and charming about songs like “One Time” and “One Less Lonely Girl” (in English we say one fewer lonely girl, young man), something genuinely kind, something heartwarmingly/heartbreakingly innocent. As his voice started to drop, he went through an excruciatingly awkward phase, trying to develop a honey-tongued R&B croon but managing only the grotesque squeak of a wannabe, with his slower, sweatier, clumsier synthbeats the musical equivalent of the sad little mustache your teenage son should just shave off already. So after a short break from the spotlight, he emerges reborn, having matured into a full-grown sex panther, slick and streamlined, flexing his muscles and growling, perfectly aware he’s the stuff of real adult fantasy now. If anything, he’s even more of a cipher; the eroticism is even more unspoken than on prior albums, where the slightest nudge-nudge wink-wink was all it took for fans to imagine this goofy child with a mop haircut and buck teeth ravishing them by candlelight. But now that he’s singing like an adult, a grown human being capable of consent, he can be implicitly framed as an object of desire without making other responsible adults wonder what exactly the difference is between this music and child pornography.
Fine, fine — Purpose’s main improvement on 2012’s Believe, by which time he was already singing lower, has mostly to do with synthesizer sound. His increased capacity for a soft, breathy, intimate, sugary loverboy whisper is just an added bonus. These are some pretty exquisite synthesizers, though; sonically, the album is gorgeous from beginning to end. While not quite qualifying as an EDM move, Purpose overflows with drops, squawks, whooshes and the like that wouldn’t sound out of place on an electrohouse album (or whatever electronica subgenre you prefer), albeit a prettier one than the norm. Producers Blood and especially Skrillex, of all people, have fashioned for Bieber a smooth, shimmering electrogroove that sometimes drops out but sometimes peaks with massive hooks rising up from a chorus and overwhelming Bieber’s vocals entirely: fizzling honey-coated synthesizers, pitched percussion thumping under the beat, high-pitched soul sprites chirping along, even the occasional electronic pan flute (pan flute!). This music seems light and buoyant only until its richness overwhelms you, despite its manufactured electronic surface, which implies a tight spareness where Purpose is lush and lyrical. That manufactured surface also engenders an astonishing array of unnatural textures that contribute tangibly to the music’s aural world, the organic exception being Bieber’s sweeter flavor of croon. The resulting album is embarrassingly beautiful.
Well, not the whole album exactly. Plenty of these songs belong to a style of electropop that’s distinctly more quotidian, more reminiscent of his past work, and several more promote inspirational messages even moonier than prior indulgences, as when “Purpose” closes with a solemn spoken-word poem addressed to his fans. Nor does Bieber himself prove the most compelling of loverboys no matter how much he’s grown; since many of these songs take penitence and/or forgiveness as their theme, probably so that he can apologize to his fans for acting like a brat in public, he rarely enters arousal mode, rarely sounds like he’s enjoying this terrible burden of being a sex fantasy. Nevertheless, “Children” erupts in a glorious aerodynamic zoom despite a lyric about changing the world that carelessly throws around the word “generation,” and “I’ll Show You” includes a blissful synthesizer hook that somehow makes the song’s meditation on fame actually sound moving. And the streak of singles he’s released from this patchy album would impress me coming even from Justin Timberlake, Jason Derulo, anybody. With the exception of “Love Yourself,” a slow, static acoustic ballad in which Bieber gives an ex-girlfriend an angry pep talk, they’ve been uniformly excellent. When “Where Are Ü Now,” a collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo, came out last February, it was billed as a Skrillex & Diplo song featuring Bieber, and it sounded unnecessarily tame compared to the rest of their hyperactive album, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü. Recontextualized here, its skittering snares, rubbery drum thwock, sensitive wailing siren, and looped falsetto bleeps add up to quite the warped ballad — designed with the dancefloor in mind, it alternates Bieber’s quiet, sung verses with louder, sped-up instrumental breaks, possibly the weirdest song structure to hit Top 40 all year. “Sorry” is faster, tighter, and hookier, combining similar textural elements to form a more conventional pop song whose chorus you can scream at the top of your lungs or hum discreetly throughout the day as the case may be. Finally, although future teenthrob scholars may disagree, I bet that in retrospect “What Do You Mean?” will stand as a work of genius to rival the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” or the Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way”. I swoon when the radio plays it.
Initially, what hooked me on the song was the electronic pan flute. If there’s a cheesier instrument available for use in a pop song, the industry hasn’t discovered it; all feelgood and vaguely tropical, it seems to glow, a cascading waterfall of bright synthesizer light reflecting against the face of the ocean, the kind of addictive sound effect you just have to hear again and again. The pitched woodblocks bouncing around underneath also qualify as such a sound effect, all stretchy and gummy and tangible. A simple chord progression on piano provides the basic melody, and a ticking clock provides the beat. The lyrics of “What Do You Mean?” dwell on a lover’s mixed signals, not to complain about blurred lines à la Robin Thicke, but to establish a series of conflicting alternatives symbolic of a yes/no binary — when you nod your head yes but you wanna say no, when you don’t want me to move but you tell me to go, first you wanna go to the left then you wanna turn right, wanna argue all day make love all night, etc. — so that he can then ask, well, which is it? That is, he asks for consent. “What do you mean?” he wonders over and over again, but he never tries to sway the answer, leaving only the neutral question, an open door, a microcosm of infinite possibility.
Inconsistent, packed with filler, Purpose has only a few highs, but boy are they high. Take notes, kids: it’s no longer embarrassing to like Justin Bieber. I never thought the day would come.