“You know I don’t do too well with apologies,” Justin Bieber declares on “Sorry,” a standout song from his fourth album, Purpose, and the sentiment almost builds an auto-critique into this mediocre attempt at a course correction. Purpose arrives at the end of a half-cocked goodwill tour rife with transparently calculated displays of repentance, from a meticulously PR-managed Comedy Central roast to a seemingly planned few extra seconds of camera time devoted to a live-on-TV cry, as well as more characteristic shit-head behaviors, like the time the Biebs trolled label-mate Shawn Mendes.
Still, there were legitimate reasons to believe this shallow media blitz might belie Bieber’s sincere bid to be taken seriously as an artist—four of them, in fact. The spring-loaded Skrillex/Diplo-produced single “Where Are Ü Now” (included here) effectively reinvented Bieber’s sound, dominating the airwaves until the album’s proper lead single, “What Do You Mean?,” applied its intricate mechanics to a more conventional pop structure, with an undeniable arrangement of pan flute and piano (courtesy of Bieber and “Boyfriend” producer MdL). “Sorry” came next, and with it a mini-resurrection of the house/reggaeton fusion Moombahton, along with Bieber’s most grown-n’-sexy lyrics: “I’m missing more than just your body.” Finally, the half-whispered “I’ll Show You” takes an Owl City-worthy ballad and beefs it up with fat bass, snapping trap percussion, and sheets of cascading synths, completing 2015’s most empirically perfect singles rollout.
Those last three tracks are packed into Purpose’s exceptional first third, bookended by a pair of stripped-down R&B ballads that put emphasis on sturdy melodies that hold up under scrutiny—even if their whiny young-man lyrics generally don’t (“My mama don’t like you and she likes everyone” is unintentionally hilarious). However, shortly after the surprise brass-and-vocalese bridge of the Ed Sheeran co-write “Love Yourself,” Purpose starts rehashing its distinct set of formulas.
The album’s biggest and most progressive producers sit out for Purpose’s sleepy midsection, as Bieber calls on a trio of guest vocalists. Instead of coherently blending these artists into his own chosen aesthetic, however, Bieber lamely coasts on theirs. So we get a Travis Scott-featuring song that sounds like Bieber hopping on a Rodeo outtake, a cavernous Halsey duet that awkwardly gear-shifts into an anachronistically euphoric chorus, and the dreamy “No Pressure,” on which Big Sean raps about “Ryu and Ken” and rhymes “uno” with “Yoko Ono.”
All of this is preferable to the cluster of songs that gum up the section surrounding “Where Are Ü Now,” at the other end of Purpose. In contrast to Jack Ü’s year-defining bid of maverick pop, the flatlining “Life Is Worth Living” and the artificially pepped-up “Children” reintroduce the most maudlin themes and motifs that have always crept through Bieber’s catalogue: sanctimoniously, expressly un-critical virtuousness and catch-all platitudes. Witness him deliver “It’s like you’re stuck on a treadmill/Running in the same place” or “Relationship on a ski slop/Avalanche coming down slow” as if they were poetry, set to starkly unadorned piano, and building to a chorus that borders on showtune-corny. The hollowly inspirational “Children” is Bieber’s worst song since Believe’s egregiously mean-spirited “Maria,” the mere existence of which makes commands like “Wear [your heart] on your sleeve” sound intolerably insincere.
Not unlike another of this year’s major pop releases, Madonna’s helter-skelter archive Rebel Heart, a considerably better album than the standard version of Purpose can be constructed by substituting in tracks tacked from the various other editions on the market. “Hit the Ground,” included on the Walmart and Japanese editions, is probably the best of these, a clear choice over the Halsey song for its more organic shifts in tempo and for Skrillex’s imaginative drop, which sounds like chip-tune bagpipes. If Bieber wants to sell us on forgiveness and the self-improvement angle that lyrics like “be a better me” seem to promote, maybe having the conviction to follow through on his intended musical reinvention would’ve been the best possible good faith gesture.
Label: Def Jam Release Date: November 13, 2015 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon