Marriage can be a tricky subject to pull off in pop music: how do you inject an eternal, post-adolescent union with the dramatic tension of a meet-cute or a first kiss, in a genre often targeted toward younger listeners? With his long-awaited new album, Justin Bieber doesn’t sound like he particularly cares about finding the answer to that question.
Changes, the follow-up to 2015’s world-conquering Purpose, is a statement of marital salvation, with Bieber shrugging off radio expectations in order to candidly sing about how much Hailey Bieber, whom he wed in September 2018, has helped provide him a sense of stability after spending much of his life in the spotlight feeling unmoored, or worse. Purpose had three No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; even if Changes has none, Bieber sounds like he’s been ready to trade chart achievements for personal clarity for some time.
The success of Purpose and its EDM-adjacent smashes — “What Do You Mean?” and “Sorry,” as well as hit collaborations like “Cold Water” and “Let Me Love You” that soon followed — rocketed Bieber to the top of popular music, after years of controversies sullied his public image (and, as recently revealed in his docuseries Seasons, heavy drug abuse damaged his psyche). Yet the success of Purpose was not a panacea: Bieber canceled multiple dates near the end of his stadium tour in support of the album, citing exhaustion and depression. Years passed with little more a guest hook or two. It was fair to wonder whether Bieber wanted to re-enter the album cycle churn at all.
Yet with Changes, the 25-year-old Bieber has reemerged clear-eyed and confident, assertive in both the sonic and thematic focus of his latest project while deploying the gleaming vocals that made him a young star. Lead single “Yummy” set the table for what is largely a return to the softer, more rhythmic sound of his experimental 2013 release, Journals. Gone is the dance floor fodder, replaced with futuristic R&B built upon a variety of trap beats. Meanwhile, the choruses are still designed with top 40 radio in mind, but the healed-through-love words are more tranquil than your typical summer anthems.
For his part, Bieber sells the overall approach by diversifying the 17-song full-length to a satisfactory degree. “Confirmation” is steady finger-snap R&B in which Bieber wants to “take a moment to cherish this space,” while “Come Around Me” is more sexually charged, with Bieber operating over a harsher beat and busting out his best post-chorus falsetto. Guest stars from Travis Scott to Lil Dicky shake up the songs into which they’re plopped, acoustic guitar is occasionally sprinkled into the mix, and Bieber’s faith sometimes gets an overt nod (“People change, circumstances change, but God always stays the same,” he concludes on the title track). The production creates a connective tissue for the album, but there are enough variations on R&Bieber here to prevent boredom from ever creeping in to Changes.
Ultimately, the album is at its most satisfying whenever Bieber places its creative catalyst, his marriage to Hailey, front and center. Sure, there are some puppy-love lyrics (“You got the keys to my city!” Bieber exclaims on “Second Emotion”), but the album’s most compelling moments, from the yearning opener “All Around Me” to the crackling Quavo team-up “Intentions,” unabashedly detail the type of fullness that Bieber has found through his romantic partnership. For those who have watched Bieber grow up in the spotlight and often struggle to adjust to its glare, this sense of newfound peace is easy to digest, a rocky Hollywood story with a happy ending. For those who simply want their favorite pop star to make an interesting full-length, Bieber has dug deep within himself to deliver a portrait of his current reality, one that is drastically different than on his previous album.
Whether or not Changes is as prosperous of an album as Purpose remains to be seen. Regardless, it is the album that Bieber needed to make at this moment, a literal passion project from one of pop’s most fascinating superstars.