Posted in Modern Pop Reviews, Music Reviews

Justin Bieber – Purpose – Review

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In the course of this blog, I have lampshaded exactly once that the vast majority of my opinions are positive, often unusually and even hyperbolically so. This is, of course, my blog. I write what I want to read, and I like positivity. But hey, diversity is always cool. So here we go, a modern pop album that didn’t do much for me! Whoop-ee!

Ugh, I’m bored writing this already. Can I go back to Björk? Iron Maiden? Zappa? No? Okay.

So, Purpose is the result of a Mister Justin Bieber basically trying to make everyone forget everything he’s ever done, musically and personally, over his entire five-year long career. If it has an overall identity, it’s to push back against everything from the teen pop to the legal troubles that have defined him as a cultural figure thus far. He chooses to do so through the ever popular lens of I’M AN ADUUUUULLLLLTTTTT!!! This brings me to the first good point of the album: it’s not an immature celebration of sex and partying as “adult” subject matter, ala Miley Cyrus (granted she also did indie neopsychedelia to express her adulthood, but the less said about that the better). Purpose isn’t a model of maturity or anything, but it at least shows a self-control and restraint befitting of an actual adult. If Justin freaking Bieber is gonna win me over, this probably isn’t a bad way to do it.

Now, on the flip side, good LORD this album gets pretentious. That’s an unpopular word in criticism, and rightly so: it’s misapplied by almost everyone who uses it and is generally crazy subjective. However, I doubt even people who like this album can say that a song like “Children” is completely adequate. Justin Bieber making a generation-wide “motivational” statement is one of the most laughable things in music that’s not those epic hard rock vocal inflections on “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.” I mean, check out this plodding drivel:

What about the children
Look at all the children we can change
What about a vision
Be a visionary for a change
We’re the generation, oh woah
Who’s gonna be the one to fight for it
We’re the inspiration
Do you believe enough to die for it

Yuck! Do I even have to critique this? Stick to your dissatisfied love songs, Bieber.

Thankfully, the album never reaches that level of sheer self-important inadequacy elsewhere. In fact, the first half of it is rather enjoyable. Things get off to a weak start with the incredibly underwhelming “Mark My Words” (Note to Justin Bieber: Please never make a backing vocal of your pitched-up whiny croon ever again), but “I’ll Show You” is incredibly solid. Bieber pulls out a surprisingly soft and likable vocal performance during the verses, the melody is unremarkable but nice on the ears, and (though far from interesting or original) the production sounds, for lack of a better word, cool. The control of synth tone and catchy instrumental hook are all very nice. Yeah it sounds like every other pop hit circa 2015, but at least it’s a well-executed version thereof.

I can’t say the same for most of the rest of the production. There’s threats of something different, like “No Pressure”, which incorporates a guitar into its beat, but then you realize that the guitar line is both completely underwhelming and completely overwhelmed by the uninspired main beat. Big Sean also shows up, painfully boring flow and bad lyricism in tow. At least his verse is short.

The rest of the stuff doesn’t even try, generally. “No Sense” sounds like it was made with default loops in Garage Band. Bieber, I can go plenty of places to get my ultra-generic RnB, why should I chose you? The previously mentioned “Children” is barely worth a namedrop. It’s one of the most unmoving, plastic-sounding attempts at “soulful” EDM I’ve ever heard. Actually, “plastic” is a good word for most of the production: it feels mass-produced, robotic, like nothing a creative human would make. It lacks any kind of passion or soul, and since passion and soul were supposed to be the aim of this “maturity” album that’s a big thumbs down. Oh yeah, and almost every song has that ambient backing hum that everyone thinks automatically makes your song “textured” but actually just makes it even more interchangeable.

But hey, give all these songs one thing, at least the lyrics aren’t horrendous. Well okay, the ones on “Children” are, but they pale in comparison to the unlistenable smash-hit monstrosity known as “Sorry.” Not only does Skrillex’s production find an inexplicable spot between mushily unnoticeable and painfully obnoxious, and not only are the insufferably whiny vocals the worst on the entire album, but the lyrics devolve into self-parody IN THE FIRST LINE.

You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty

This is an epic failure of an apology song for the ages. Its badness is all-encompassing. Every time a pop music listener hears this disaster and thinks “Wow, what a nice and sincere apology” the world gets a little bit worse. Ewww! Get it off! If you’ve somehow managed to avoid this one, stay away.

Don’t stay away from “Love Yourself”, though. The stripped-back approach makes it easily the most unique and memorable song on the album sonically, and instead of taking the typical acoustic route it makes an essentially acapella song backed by some intermittent, catchy acoustic riffs. There’s also a classy, distant trumpet solo near the end that’s easily the most interesting musical idea on the album. The very simple melody is pleasant as well. It’s not great, but it’s plenty enjoyable and I don’t mind hearing it on the radio.

The leadoff single “What Do You Mean” is rather nice as well. It could be accused of being a bit hookless, but the real hook of the song for me isn’t the vocal melody, it’s that clock. Hey, I like Pink Floyd’s “Time”, and I think there should be more swinging pendulums in music. The keyboard melody serves as decent backing, and even the lyrics ain’t too bad. I’m big on antithesis, this does it okay for me.

There’s also a couple tracks that, while they’re super generic, aren’t as actively frustrating or grating as the ones I’ve previously mentioned. “Company” has a nice, mellow, wistful feel that’s complimented by some tolerable lyrics and vocals. “The Feeling” is more or less in the same vein, weaker lyrically but still a nice lush pop song with a surprisingly robust hook. There’s also a complete oddball in the form of “Where Are U Now”, which isn’t terribly interesting but at least has a weird exotic sound that breaks up the album’s flow.

The two remaining tracks are the unbelievably awful ballads “Life Is Worth Living” and “Purpose.” The former has one of those almost-nothing-but-chords keyboard backings that bore me to tears. There’s no dynamism or satisfaction to it. The vocal melody fares a bit better but is brought down by Bieber’s completely unresonant delivery and lyrics that stink of clichés and faux-inspiration. The latter is better, with a more interesting piano part, but the crushingly self-serious atmosphere just cannot be justified. It closes the album with an excruciating spoken word speech that sounds like the worst part of every celebrity interview where they try to be inspirational. It’s contemporary Christian music put to the service of a grand finale.

Clearly this is not a consistent album. About half the songs are enjoyable, which isn’t really a great number. But ALL the songs, even the good ones, suffer from one Achilles heel: Bieber himself. Put simply, he is not interesting. He has no personality on here other than attempts at maturity that fluctuate between pretentious and whiny. He simply does not have the presence or charisma necessary for super-personal pseudo-spiritual gobbledygook. This isn’t helped by his awful, awful vocals. I know of several vocalists who can pull off the breathy, crooning, avoid-the-diaphragm-at-all-costs style of vocals, and Bieber is not one of them. He is insufferably mellow and overly serious on here, which hinders my enjoyment a lot. I can’t even tell him to branch out, because when he does, he does things like trying to sound gansta on “No Sense”, and the results are EVEN MORE PAINFUL.

The other consistent problem is the melodies. They’re not good. A few of them are catchy, but even those ones suffer from being weak and emotionally deadweight. The best melodies are ones that understand the cadence of each note and combine them in a robust, punchy, evocative way. Purpose’s melodies do none of those things. Few of them are awful (though the hooks on “No Pressure” and “Sorry” definitely qualify), but none of them leave any impression.

And that’s the key aspect of how I feel about Purpose: I don’t feel about Purpose. It stirs absolutely nothing in me. Not fun, not emotion, not happiness, not rage. It simply does absolute nothing for me because I can’t connect to Bieber as a person or an artist. Yes, I realize the irony of writing 1500 words about an album and then saying it left no impression on me, but there’s a lot more then straightforward gushing or hatred to break down here. Nevertheless, the first half levels out at enjoyable with one dud (“Mark My Words”) and one garbage fire (“Sorry”), and the second half has some nice tracks as well. So alright, it’s not a total loss. But I can I recommended it? Not definitively, no.

Well, that was my non-positive review. I hope the public imagination I’ve totally captured is satisfied.

Music: 3/5 More like a 2.5, but whatever.

Identity/Themes: 1/5 If he wasn’t at least trying, I would sincerely consider giving this a zero.

Lyricism: 2/5

Vocals: 1/5

Diversity: 3/5

Resonance: 0/5 Oh YEAH! There we go!

EXPERIENCE: Lengthy conversations with extended family at the dinner table when you’re a kid. At least there’s some good food sometimes.

5/10

Best Songs:

  1. Love Yourself
  2. I’ll Show You
  3. What Do You Mean?
  4. Company
  5. The Feeling

Worst Song: Sorry

Listen here (with bonus tracks):