Connoisseurs of documentaries that reveal the full horror of becoming famous – particularly at a young age – are currently spoilt for choice. Over on Netflix, there’s Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana, a film that makes 21st-century celebrity look like something you’d mete out as a last-ditch punishment: a lonely, exhausting world of constant scrutiny, unending bullshit and dealings with people ostensibly on your side whose commitment to your best interests looks shaky to say the least. Meanwhile, on YouTube, there’s Justin Bieber’s Seasons.
The latter isn’t intended as a cautionary tale. Quite the opposite. It’s a 10-part puff piece, the ruthlessly clear-eyed, non-partisan tone of which can be gleaned from the titles of its episodes: Making Magic, Bieber’s Back. It’s designed to assure all and sundry that its star is recovered from mental and physical illness, and years of drug use that apparently began when he was 13. But an ineffable unease oozes from the screen. If Bieber appears better than he was during the tour for his 2015 album Purpose – during the London shows, he stood miserably on stage, unable to muster the enthusiasm even to mime to a backing track – he still seems fragile and troubled, talking with his head in his hands about the effort it takes him to get out of bed in the morning, explaining how the oxygen chamber he keeps in the studio “decreases anxiety”. “Being human,” he says at one point, “is challenging”.
For all the onscreen captions giving viewers details of how to contact mental health and substance abuse helplines, the documentaries are patently not a philanthropic exercise: they’ve been made to promote Bieber’s new album. It arrived heralded by the single Yummy, which if nothing else, offered a stark indicator of the point pop music has reached in 2020. It was apparently designed with the intention of becoming a sensation on TikTok, the vastly popular social network where kids post short video clips. The chorus – “you’ve got that yummy yum” – was meme-able nonsense, the rest went in one ear and out the other. That was the point. On its own terms, it worked a treat – TikTok ubiquity followed – although the question of whether pop music might be better off setting its artistic sights a fraction higher than coming up with a memorable 10-second jingle, a tricked-out 21st-century equivalent of “For mash, get Smash”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, hung rather heavily over the enterprise.
If Yummy seemed cynical – bolstered by instructions to fans on how to game the streaming services and get it to No 1 – then at least that’s not an accusation you can level at the rest of Changes. Indeed, listening to it after watching the first few episodes of Seasons, you find yourself wondering if the man behind it really wants to be as successful as he was. The kind of big-name songwriters and producers whose efforts boosted Purpose to multi-platinum success – BloodPop, Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco – are noticeable by their absence. Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, who co-wrote the squillion-selling Sorry, were last spotted writing for the ex-girlfriend who inspired it, Selena Gomez. Also absent are sure-fire smash hits.
Instead, it deals largely in low-key, short, floaty paeans to Bieber’s wife, Hailey Baldwin – “it’s a blessing that you’re in my life”, “you make sure I’m comfortable”, “what are our kids going to be like?”, etc – and to his faith. The title track is over almost before it begins, unexpectedly grinding to a halt with a spoken-word section: “People change, circumstances change, but God always stays the same.”
You get an occasional whiff of mumble rap in the vocal delivery of Forever, which comes with a guest appearance from Post Malone, and a hint of R&B grind on Take It Out On Me, but its primary sounds are pillowy electronics and acoustic ballads. It isn’t entirely devoid of hooks – the chorus of Running Over sticks fast – and nor is it badly done: the dense mesh of synths on Second Emotion is suitably heady, the effects-laden guitar on closer At Least For Now has an intriguingly psychedelic tint. And Bieber sings it all beautifully enough to make you wish they’d dispensed with the liberal slathering of Auto-Tune that has the side-effect of rendering evidently heartfelt sentiments and performances distant and faintly robotic.
It just feels subdued and unassuming, which are curious things for mainstream pop to be. It’s a tentative, rather than all-guns-blazing, return, with a by-any-means-necessary bubblegum single dutifully tacked on to throw his record label a bone. In fact, it feels exactly like the kind of album that the clearly damaged man at the centre of the Seasons documentary would make. And, like the Seasons documentary, it makes you wonder what the future holds for Justin Bieber.