In the video of ‘One Time’, one of the first tracks from Canadian singer Justin Bieber, a grinning 15-year-old Bieber cheekily sets up a wild party at mentor Usher’s house. In Believe, his third studio album, Bieber firmly distances himself from any trace of that boyishness.
Bieber co-writes many of his songs, and to his credit, the album isn’t monotonous: there’s a variety of vocal sounds and music to be sampled. That said, familiar figures such as the rapper Ludacris, who appeared in the hugely successful ‘Baby’, do figure again. A number of songs in the album are nods to hugely successful pop songs. ‘Boyfriend’ flips boy band N Sync’s ‘Girlfriend’ over for a catchy-but-familiar tune. Another track that lifts its name from an existing pop song is ‘As Long As You Love Me’.
The original Backstreet Boys version was, for many, the introduction to that grand entity called English Music. Bieber’s version ends the similarities at the title; the song is replete with electronica gimmicks and overly breathy vocals. Besides, Bieber claims, “As long as you love me/we could be starving/we could be homeless/we could be broke”: the exaggeration jars. Other songs that seem recycled for their titles – and ideas – are ‘One Love’ and title track ‘Believe’. ‘Believe’ is all soaring strings and choral backing: it would succeed in its attempt to be an anthem were it not filled with platitudes such as ‘where would I be/If you didn’t believe’.
One breath of fresh air comes in ‘Catching Feelings’, a groovy and mellow song in the way that good pop is. Bieber tones his excited vocals down to a humming, light sound, one that’s aptly suited to the understated guitar accompaniment. The mildly funky Motown feel of ‘Die In Your Arms’ is a pleasant surprise. But every now and then, the album falls back into songs like ‘Thought Of You’, a mindless, mechanical uptempo-and-falsetto-filled song. For those who don’t belong to the singer’s rapidly growing base of enthusiastic teenagers, there might have been some cuteness to be found in the boyish vocals and toothy grin that characterised Bieber’s earlier albums and music videos. With Believe, Bieber attempts to tread slightly more mature territory: this is a risk, and one that falls flat when Bieber’s trying to be suave or more confident than he is, such as in ‘Take You’.
It’s pleasant that the album isn’t all puppy love. This extends beyond the cover’s overt Elvis styling (complete with pout). But Bieber’s step into mature music territory doesn’t make for musical freshness; Believe doesn’t move beyond all-too-common pop themes. Fans can look forward to a new sound. As for the not-yet-converted, should you happen to stumble on the CD in a friend’s car, it isn’t all cloying dance-pop. It still is, however, Justin Bieber. The album may be one giant step forward for Bieber, but it’s a miniscule step ahead, if at all, for good music that stands on its own.
Believe, Justin Bieber, Universal Records, Audio CD: Rs 395