Music

Just Justin: the case for Bieber's acoustic songs

There's more to the global superstar than slickly produced Top 40 hits.

There's more to the global superstar than slickly produced Top 40 hits

Justin Bieber performs onstage at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Dec. 2, 2016. (Mike Windle/Getty Images; design by Melody Lau/CBC Music)

Justin Bieber's catalogue overflows with slickly produced songs boasting the latest in audio-engineering technology, executed by today's foremost studio producers: Skrillex, Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd, Blood, Frank Dukes and Andrew Watt, to name only a few. It's an art, and Bieber has become one of its leading practitioners, with songs such as "Yummy," "What do you Mean?" and, most recently, "Peaches" becoming undeniable pop culture touchstones.

But alongside those chart-topping tracks, Bieber regularly rounds out his albums with less conspicuous acoustic songs of the lean-in-and-listen variety — stripped-down songs that place the focus on his vocal phrasing, lyrics and guitar and keyboard skills. With less "stuff" going on, there's more room for expression, and it's into these acoustic songs that Bieber pours his most heartfelt sentiments and reveals himself to be a singer-songwriter of remarkable distinction.

This facet of Bieber's artistry often goes unnoticed, especially by detractors who can't see beyond the ingrained image of a boy idol and dismiss his R&B/pop without actually listening to it.

We admire both sides of Bieber's output — the record-crushing, lavishly produced mega hits and the lesser-known, soulful, stripped-down songs — and we're here to make a case for the latter with an appreciation of his best acoustic tracks.

What's your favourite Bieber song? Let us know on Twitter @CBCMusic.


'Lonely'

In recent years, Bieber has been much more candid about how fame impacted his career and well-being, and that honesty has found its way into his music, too. On a stripped-down version of "Lonely," Bieber gets personal about his struggles with celebrity ("Everybody knows my past now/ Like my house was always made of glass/ And maybe that's the price you pay/ For the money and fame at an early age"), later stretching his voice into a yodel as he admits, "I'm so lonely."


'Lifetime'

You may have missed this beautiful song that appeared only on the "Triple Chucks Deluxe" edition of Bieber's latest album, Justice. It's a gently waltzing, Appalachian-style guitar song that celebrates commitment and includes the subtly brilliant line, "Every dance is slow/ every kiss is 'woah,'" with its falsetto flip on that final word. It's hard to imagine a better song for a first dance.


'Off my Face'

This mid-tempo meditation on love's intoxicating powers has an endearing Simon & Garfunkel feel, with its finger-picking and "woo woo woo" that recalls "Mrs. Robinson." But it's Bieber's precision as a falsettist that really makes this song pop, as he sings, "I don't know how you do it/ but I'm forever ruined by you" — so breathily close to the mic that his notion inhabits your head and effectively becomes your own.

He performed it on his recent live stream from Paris:


'Changes'

Sustained by a basic, three-chord guitar motif, the title track from Bieber's Grammy-nominated Changes will appeal to all those skeptics who were charmed by "Love Yourself" from his 2015 album, Purpose. "I just wanna be the best of me," goes the pre-chorus, "So that I can be the best for you" — a simply beautiful sentiment, sung without pretense and putting his unerring rhythmic sense on display.


'Fast Car' (Tracy Chapman cover)

When you first hear Bieber's acoustic rendition of Tracy Chapman's 1988 hit, "Fast Car," it's clear that the song holds an important significance for the R&B/pop star. A track that Bieber grew up with — "My mom used to play it my whole childhood," he revealed in 2016 — his "Fast Car" cover puts his signature falsetto aside for a simple, grounded vibrato; a shining example of how Bieber is often most effective when he's musically stripped-down.


'What do you Mean?' (acoustic)

Bieber's Purpose era focused on crafting big dance anthems, helping popularize the tropical pop sound with hits like "Sorry" and "Where Are Ü Now." While "What do you Mean?" fits into that sonic category, its acoustic version proves that, when you strip these songs of their glossy production, their melodies still stand strong and that's thanks to Bieber's warm and soulful vocal performance.


'Love Yourself'

Bieber can't take all the credit for this song's phenomenal success — it has more than 1.5 billion Spotify streams, surely one of the platform's top songs. It was written by Ed Sheeran, who later covered it (if one can cover one's own song), and he's not the only musician who was wowed by Bieber's performance of this track from Purpose (with its adorable trumpet solo part-way through), as this performance by Alessia Cara attests.


'Be Alright'

As early as 2012's Believe, Bieber was including acoustic gems among his album's predominantly R&B/pop tracks. On "Be Alright," buoyed only by rhythm guitar, Bieber sings about facing adversity — a theme that would preoccupy him again (and in a much darker mode) on Justice. His post-pubescent voice sounds right at home gliding over the chords and finding surprising melodic twists and turns to explore as he sings the song out.

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