We haven't talked enough about Justin Bieber's "Lonely."
Sure, the bare-bones ballad about the singer's rough ride as a child star racked up millions of streams on its way to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. And yes, Bieber drew admiring reviews when he sang "Lonely" last fall on "Saturday Night Live."
But this song! In language about as frank (and un-self-pitying) as any teen-pop survivor has ever deployed, "Lonely" — now featured as the closing track on Bieber's frustrating new album, "Justice" — nails the experience of finding yourself at the center of a heartthrob-industrial complex with little interest in your personal development.
"Everybody saw me sick/ And it felt like no one gave a s—," Bieber sings, practically spitting out the expletive, over soft-touch electric piano. "They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid."
The tune is one of the finest vocal performances in Bieber's career; he's moving gracefully between his scraped-up lower register and his crystal-clear falsetto and even doing some yodeling in the chorus. (Watch the "SNL" clip to see him add some impressive runs.) More important, "Lonely" — which the 27-year-old singer co-wrote with his producers Benny Blanco and Finneas O'Connell — has the feel of a complete story, one only he could tell.
Which makes it disappointing to discover that "Justice" abandons that sharp dramatic ambition. With 16 tracks in a wide variety of styles and moods, Bieber's centerless sixth studio album is noisy and grab-baggy in a way that once was typical for him (and other major pop acts) yet now registers as shallow and unsatisfying.
His commercial rationale seems clear if misguided. Early last year, after a lengthy hiatus during which he focused on his mental health and later got married, Bieber released "Changes," a collection of low-key and winningly goofy R&B songs dedicated to his wife, the model Hailey Baldwin. Creatively, the album was a success — a Grammy-nominated labor of love with welcome echoes of his cult-fave "Journals" from 2013.
But "Changes," which came out just before COVID-19 shut down much of the world, didn't do Bieber's usual numbers. And the inevitable delay of his accompanying tour — several dates of which had already been downsized from stadiums to arenas, reportedly due to poor ticket sales — only limited its impact further. (Bieber's postponed tour is scheduled to launch June 2 in San Diego, which seems ... optimistic.)
So here's "Justice" with a little bit of something for everyone: acoustic balladry, '80s pop-rock, gleaming EDM. "Holy," the album's church-group singalong of a lead single, went to No. 3; "Anyone," which evokes Phil Collins' airy blue-eyed soul, followed "Holy" up the Hot 100 to No. 6. Next week, the album's accumulated streams — including those of "Lonely," a far better song than the higher-charting "Holy" or "Anyone" — are likely to end Morgan Wallen's 10-week reign atop the Billboard 200.
Stats aside, though, Bieber's scattershot approach on "Justice" feels out of sync with the rest of modern pop. Part of what makes him appear old-fashioned is that the white male pop star has simply receded from view in an era defined by hip-hop. And those who've stuck around — Harry Styles, for example — create whole ecosystems for their fans in a way that Bieber mostly forgoes on this album. (The white male pop star's other path, as demonstrated by Adam Levine and Maroon 5, leads to adult-geared Hot AC radio, a pasture Bieber seems unwilling to enter just yet.)
You can tell the singer understands that an album these days needs some kind of organizing principle thanks to his inclusion of two spoken passages by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: one at the beginning of the album, where King declares, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and one halfway through the LP, in an excerpt from a sermon about summoning the courage to "stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause."
But what on earth King has to do with Bieber's songs about the love of his wife — yes, more of them, though sadly with less quirky detail than on "Changes" — is anyone's guess. That Bieber failed to anticipate the blowback he's received for using these snippets so blithely in 2021 is its own problem.
Taken song by song, "Justice" has its highlights, including "Die for You," a snappy new wave duet with Dominic Fike; "Peaches," an easygoing R&B jam featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon; and "Ghost," which punches up a vaguely creepy emo sentiment ("If I can't be close to you, I'll settle for the ghost of you") with busy programmed drums.
As a whole, though, the album short-changes the hard-won storytelling talent that Bieber has cultivated. That "idiot kid" from "Lonely" didn't suffer for that, did he?
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