In 2011, on his holiday album Under the Mistletoe, Justin Bieber came on like Mariah Carey’s kid nephew — a sort of pint-sized vocal prodigy — in a squeaky-clean duet with the singer on her All I Want for Christmas Is You.
Two Christmases later, Bieber is nearing the end of a year in which he’s done about as much as possible to shake off the childlike innocence that helped establish him as one of pop music’s biggest (and most polarising) acts.
The incidents will be familiar even to casual followers of celebrity gossip: the heated run-in with a photographer in London, the unauthorised spray-painting of walls in South America and Australia, the urination into a mop bucket in a New York restaurant. And then there was the explosive viral video that depicts a woman — a prostitute, according to some reports — blowing a kiss to Bieber as he sleeps on a sofa.
At 19, he’s already lived more colourfully than many stars three times his age.
Bieber channels some of that growth (if indeed “growth” is the right word) on Journals, a new digital album that collects ten singles recently released on iTunes along with five previously unissued songs. The package, which went on sale late Sunday, precedes Justin Bieber’s Believe, a concert-film documentary due in cinemas on Wednesday.
In these songs he almost entirely avoids the high-energy dance beats that defined his last album, 2012’s Believe. The music is slower and more restrained, with clean-toned electric guitar licks and gently stuttering R&B grooves; Recovery, one especially assured highlight, is built on a sample from Fill Me In by the English soul singer Craig David. It’s a knowing choice of source material, indicating both a shift in stylistic direction as well as Bieber’s affinity with another performer who found fame during his teen years.
Mournful break-up songs
As individual instalments of the singer’s Music Mondays series (in which he released a new track every week from early October through mid-December), cuts like the bluesy All That Matters and the hollowed-out Hold Tight suggested that Bieber was using the iTunes rollout to experiment with different moods and textures; here they feel like parts of an impressively unified whole.
They’re held together largely by Bieber’s singing, which is terrific throughout Journals — breathy and expressive, but also muscular when it needs to be, as in the chewy pop-funk tune Roller Coaster.
Yet his vocal ability has been apparent for some time to anyone who’s bothered to listen. What distinguishes Journals is that he’s using that voice to confront the awkward ageing-in-public process head-on, rare among his peers beyond Taylor Swift. There are mournful break-up songs presumably inspired by his on-again/off-again relationship with Selena Gomez. There are credibly lascivious sex jams such as PYD, a duet with R. Kelly.
And, perhaps most important, there are tunes that take up his evolving reputation with surprising candour. Sometimes, as in All Bad, he’s assuring a lover that the haters have him all wrong.
“Instigators like putting fire on propane,” he croons over a head-nodding beat, brushing off the criticism like so much dirt on his shoulder.
At other points, though, Bieber seems willing, even eager, to implicate himself in the tabloid circus that his life has become. “First I’ll acknowledge our trust has been broken,” he sings in Recovery, one of several lyrics here that might apply to a single person or to the portion of his audience put off by his recent antics.
He goes further in Change Me, a delicate piano ballad that opens with his accepting “a little responsibility” before proposing a solution to a problem he didn’t even have this time last year. “Maybe you could change me,” he sings with an exquisite tear in his voice. “Maybe you could be the light that opens up my eyes, make all my wrongs right.”
It’s a come-to-Jesus moment that has nothing to do with Christmas.