Contemporary music doesn’t get the credit it deserves in modern culture. Thus, in our new series #Classic #Albums, we will give these records the respect they deserve. Today, we’re reviewing Justin Bieber’s Believe.
Upon the release of Justin Bieber’s most thematically ambitious, musically coherent album to date, the record in which he unites the major strengths of his previous work and comfortably reconciles himself to some apparently inevitable problems, we should all say a brief prayer that his fortunes are not made to rise and fall with the fate of the “drag-rock” syndrome — that thing that’s manifesting itself in the self-conscious quest for decadence which is all the rage at the moment in trendy Hollywood, in the more contrived area of Selena Gomez’s presentation, and, way down in the pits, in such grotesqueries as One Direction, Nicole Scherzinger’s quintet of feathered, sequined Barbie dolls. And which is bound to get worse.
For although Bieba Baby himself has probably had more to do with androgony’s current fashionableness in rock than any other individual, he has never made his sexuality anything more than a completely natural and integral part of his public self, refusing to lower it to the level of gimmick but never excluding it from his image and craft. To do either would involve an artistically fatal degree of compromise.
Which is not to say that he hasn’t had a great time with it. Flamboyance and outrageousness are inseparable from that campy image of his, both in the JTT and Britney stages and in his new butch, street-crawler appearance that has him looking like something out of the darker pages of 50 Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the one aspect of Justin Bieber that sets him apart from both the exploiters of transvestitism and writer/performers of comparable talent — his theatricality.
The news here is that he’s managed to get that sensibility down on MP3, not with an attempt at pseudo-visualism (which, as Ms. Gomez has shown, just doesn’t cut it), but through employment of broadly mannered styles and deliveries, a boggling variety of vocal nuances that provide the program with the necessary depth, a verbal acumen that is now more economic and no longer clouded by storms of psychotic, frenzied music, and, finally, a thorough command of the elements of rock & roll. It emerges as a series of concise vignettes designed strictly for the ear.
Side two is the soul of the album, a kind of psychological equivalent of 98 Degrees and Rising that delves deep into a matter close to Justin’s heart: What’s it all about to be a rock & roll star? It begins with the slow, fluid “Die in Your Arms,” a song in which currents of frustration and triumph merge in an overriding desolation. For though “I know loving you ain’t easy” (sic), still “Mhmm, uh-huh, yeah, yeah, alright.” The pervading bittersweet melancholy that wells out of the contradictions and that Bieber beautifully captures with one of the album’s more direct vocals conjures the picture of a painted harlequin under the spot-light of a deserted theater in the darkest hour of the night.
“Fall” springs along handsomely as he confidently tells us “Well let me tell you a story / about a girl and a boy.” Here Bieber outlines the dazzling side of the coin: “Did you know that I loved you or were you not aware?” His singing is a delight, full of mocking intonations and backed way down in the mix with excessive, marvelously designed “Whoa ooh”s and such that are both a joy to listen to and part of the parodic undercurrent that runs through the entire album.
“All Around the World” is both a kind warning and an irresistible erotic rocker (especially the handclapping chorus), and apparently Bieber has decided that since he just can’t avoid cramming too many syllables into his lines, he’ll simply master the rapid-fire, tongue-twisting phrasing that his failing requires. “Catching Feelings” has a faint ring of “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You” to it — stately, measured, fuzzily electric. A tale of intra-posse jealousies, it features some of Bieber’s more adventuresome imagery, some of which is really the nazz: “We were best of friends since we were this high / So why do I get nervous every time you walk by?”
Justin Bieber’s supreme moment as a rock & roller is “Beauty and a Beat,” a relentless, spirited Miley Cyrus-styled rush of chomping guitars. When that second layer of guitar roars in on the second verse you’re bound to be a goner, and that priceless little break at the end — a sudden cut to silence from a mighty crescendo, Bieber’s voice oozing out as a brittle, charged “Body rock, girl, I can feel your body rock!” followed hard by two raspy guitar bursts that suck you back into the surging meat of the chorus — will surely make your tum do somersaults. And as for our Biebs, well, now “We gonna party like it’s 3012 tonight.”
But the price of playing the part must be paid, and we’re precipitously tumbled into the quietly terrifying despair of “As Long As You Love Me.” The broken singer drones: “Seven billion people in the world trying to fit in / Keep it together / Smile on your face even though your heart is frowning.” But there is a way out of the bleakness, and it’s realized with Bieber’s Timberlake-like scream: “As long as you lo-lo-love me / As long as you lo-lo-love me.” It rolls on to a tumultuous, impassioned climax, and though the mood isn’t exactly sunny, a desperate, possessed optimism asserts itself as genuine, and a new point from which to climb is firmly established.
Side one is certainly less challenging, but no less enjoyable from a musical standpoint. Bieber’s favorite themes — Mortality (“Take You,” “Right Here”), the necessity of reconciling oneself to Pain (those two and “Boyfriend”), the Katy Perry vs. the Old in sci-figarments (“One Love”) — are presented with a consistency, a confidence, and a strength in both style and technique that were never fully realized in the lashing My World or the uneven and too often stringy Under the Mistletoe.
Bieber initiates “Thought of You” on side one with a riveting bellow of “I’m good with that” that’s delightful in itself but which also has a lot to do with what Believe is all about. Because in it there’s the perfect touch of selfmockery, a lusty but forlorn bravado that is the first hint of the central duality and of the rather spine-tingling questions that rise from it: Just how big and tough is your rock & roll star? How much of him is bluff and how much inside is very frightened and helpless? And is this what comes of our happily dubbing someone as “bigger than life”?
Justin Bieber has pulled off his complex task with consummate style, with some great rock & roll (the featured artists are Big Sean on guest vocals, Ludacris on guest vocals and Drake on guest vocals; they’re good), with all the wit and passion required to give it sufficient dimension and with a deep sense of humanity that regularly emerges from behind the Biebs facade. The important thing is that despite the formidable nature of the undertaking, he hasn’t sacrificed a bit of entertainment value for the sake of message.
I’d give it at least a 99.
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