The most striking image in “Seasons” — the thinly veiled 10-part commercial that Justin Bieber has been rolling out piecemeal on YouTube to promote his fifth studio album — is the sight of the 25-year-old pop superstar zipping himself into a personal oxygen chamber.
Proof (if you required it) that pop superstars are nothing like the rest of us, it’s a blunt visual expression of what the documentary series makes clear in plenty of other ways: Bieber, scarred from the experience of global celebrity, is in deep need of protection. Again and again, we see the people around him — his wife, Hailey Baldwin; his manager, Scooter Braun; his one-time “swagger coach,” Ryan Good — doing all they can to create a kind of safe space around Bieber, who talks frankly in the show about having his nervous system wrecked at a young age by too much money, too many drugs, too much adulation.
The singer makes yet another cocoon for himself on “Changes,” a low-key set of gentle electro-R&B jams that depicts his relationship with Baldwin as a refuge from the unkind world he’s still not quite ready to reenter. Long on clean-toned guitars and drowsy soul grooves — and many, many words about the love of a good woman — it represents a distinct shift from the throbbing EDM of Bieber’s last album, 2015’s “Purpose”; its stylistic consistency marks a new approach, too, after the freelance dabbling Bieber did between LPs in far-flung collaborations with Luis Fonsi, David Guetta, Dan + Shay and others.
Yet R&B has always been where Bieber — who, don’t forget, came up under the tutelage of Usher — goes for comfort and redemption. It’s the natural home for his high, breathy voice and for the little vocal flourishes at which he excels; you can hear how gratified he is to have some space to stretch out in songs such as “Habitual” and “Available,” which sound like demos compared with the tight grid-like structures of “Purpose” hits such as “Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?”
In these songs and others, “Changes” can recall “Journals,” the intimate collection of digital singles Bieber released in 2013, at the end of a year in which his paparazzi exploits (including his novel use of a restaurant’s mop bucket) put a serious dent in his popularity. Chief among the studio pros here? Poo Bear, who also worked behind the scenes on “Journals” — and who can be seen regularly in “Seasons,” one more protector swaddling Bieber as they compose the relaxed melodies and appealingly quirky lyrics here.
“Let’s not miss out on each other / Let’s get it in expeditiously,” he coos in “Come Around Me,” while “Intentions” deploys an unexpected financial-planning metaphor: “Heart full of equity, you’re an asset.” In “All Around Me” he describes the comforts of a long-term relationship like someone twice his age — then ends the track with a newborn’s squeal. (Perhaps there’s an announcement in store for the final episode of the YouTube series.)
It all suggests that Bieber is finally in a good place, though the question this very chill — and often very lovely — album poses for the singer is whether that place can overlap with the spot he once held at the center of pop. The sprinkling of on-trend trap drums indicate he’s thinking about it, as do streaming-bait guest spots by Post Malone and Travis Scott. And Bieber’s 127 million Instagram followers — that’s twice the number Drake has — prove the spot is there for the retaking if he wants it.
But the slow-burning “Changes” feels for the most part like a willful retreat from a scene that demands instant engagement. Which you’d say was precisely the point of the thing if Bieber weren’t headed out on a stadium tour in May. How this cozy, small-scaled stuff plays in those gigantic spaces is anyone’s guess. There’s only so much oxygen in the open air.