Justin Leaves Little to Believe In

It would be easy to listen to two tracks from the new Justin Bieber release, slag the whole album as pop garbage, and leave it at that.

At just over 48 minutes long, Believe does plenty of things right. A small army of producers, including big names Diplo, Zedd, and Bei Maejor, give the album’s 13 tracks an impressive range of beats and synth lines. Try as you might, you can’t find an unsatisfying chord progression or drumbeat anywhere.

The album is consistent, but this turns out to be more of a drawback than a virtue. Too many of the tracks are nothing more than half of a verse followed by a neverending chorus. “As Long As You Love Me,” one of the album’s better cuts, teases the listener with a dubstep-inspired beat that never develops beyond the first minute.

Lyrically, rehashed clichés about love and lust abound. The most lyrically complex tracks still only reach the quality of a Bruno Mars b-side. At 18, we should expect more of him. You’re a man, Justin! Sing about driving and sex and cigarettes and lottery tickets. Even a song about registering to vote would be more interesting than any of the tracks on Believe. Dating a Disney Channel star shouldn’t confine you to only writing corny Disney-channel style lyrics.

Lacking, too, is the voice. For someone who got his start by showcasing his impressive vocal cords, Bieber is far too reserved. Where he needs to sing out, he’s too calm. Where he should drop to a near whisper, electronic effects ruin any sentimentality. Unless the key to his vocal prowess is on the swooshy hair, it’s safe to say Bieber could have done more vocally. Even the featured artists (Ludacris and Nicki Minaj among them) fail to bring anything exceptional to the table.

Believe is the product of an industry working together and losing individual strengths in the process. On almost every track, Bieber is credited with multiple songwriters and producers. This setup has become the standard for pop music and when executed well can have fantastic results. The writer-producer-performer paradigm has made Beyoncé Knowles a superstar. But when Beyoncé sings, she makes songs her own. She performs in ways her songwriters could never top. Bieber’s a big boy now; it’s time for him to start recording like one.

It’s not for lack of talent that Bieber falls flat. He has all of the requisite elements to be a star. “Be Alright,” the one song on the album Bieber wrote without assistance, is the best. “Thought Of You” showcases where his voice can go when used properly. Unfortunately, the lead single for the album (titled “Boyfriend”) showcases exactly what’s wrong about the Bieber-machine model of songwriting.

Worst of all, the album isn’t memorable. Earlier songs like “Baby” or “One Time” still trump anything on Believe. They aren’t any better lyrically and the sound is just as processed. But early Justin captivated an audience. Early Justin turned single mothers into zombie fangirls willing to destroy anything that challenged the Canadian boy-sation’s reign. That magic is gone now. Believe won’t cause mass hysteria or inspire millions of plucky cover versions. The most infectious music makes you dance before you even realize it’s playing. I hated “Baby” with every fiber of my being, but I still sing along when I hear it on the radio. Our grandchildren will hear stories of how Bieber-fever ravaged a nation in 2010. It’s now clear that 2012 won’t bring a second wave.

The album’s title picks up where Bieber’s concert documentary Never Say Never left off. Each asks us to go along with the hype, framing it in an underdog Justin-against-the-world mindset. The title track follows this same narrative, explaining how Peter Pan-style belief and the loving support of fans made Bieber who he is today. Believe a little more and who knows what could happen next.

True Beliebers would buy Believe even if it contained nothing more than sounds of cats vomiting, but for the still-deciding consumer, a word of caution: you can do better. Tuesday also sees the release of new music from Fiona Apple and Glen Hansard, each superior choices if you seek lyrical depth or musical complexity. For the casual listener looking for infectious pop songs about lust, relationships, and growing up, Walk The Moon‘s self titled debut is a much better selection. Regardless, $10 is better in your pocket than being spent on Believe.

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