“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.
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.