CHICAGO — This past year has been a Justin Bieber renaissance.
After what seemed like a never-ending public “my bad” for his past adolescent indiscretions — the house-egging and drag racing and mop-bucket urination — the singer has never been more widely revered.
The past eight months alone have been stunning for the young man who notched three No. 1 singles and shed his bad-boy image. And most importantly for the former teen star’s long-term viability, his latest effort, “Purpose,” an album of slickly produced midtempo R&B, took him from being perceived as little more than an overpaid bubble gum teeny-bopper to a respected adult pop star.
Despite that turnaround, Bieber’s “Purpose” tour, which visited Allstate Arena near Chicago last week for a pair of sold-out shows, still carried it with it the air of a young man cleansing himself of his checkered past. It was all bathed in a sea of elaborate production, of course, as mega pop stars are wont to do, but the 22-year-old Canadian singer knows that intimacy with his fan base has served and continues to serve him well. To that end, Bieber’s elaborate show was as much about a young man displaying — and at many times directly explaining — his transformation as a vehicle to showcase his undeniable, exceptional talent as vocalist and performer.
It’s a tricky proposition for any performer to weave sincerity and sermon-like speeches into an aggressively choreographed show, let alone one where a performer’s thoughts will surely be muffled by shrieks of ecstasy from his audience. And yet there was Bieber, professing how he’d “lost his purpose” and how “it’s not how we fall but it’s how we rise,” not long after bouncing on trampolines over the heads of people seated on the venue’s floor during his current single, “Company.”
At times the entire thing felt like it could come off the hinges, but it never did because Bieber is nothing if not a well-rehearsed (if occasionally flaccid and disinterested) performer. His gaze remained unfixed throughout the majority of his set — particularly during “What Do You Mean?” — as skilled dancers slid down skate ramps. Still, you sensed — or rather hoped for the sake of the hefty ticket price — it was simply the singer concentrating on executing a string of robotic dance moves amid the chaos rather than a genuine disinterest in the proceedings.
Early in his career Bieber often looked like a high school Romeo trying to impress a girl with flashy gesticulations, but as his confidence has increased so has his attention to detail.
Palpable indifference notwithstanding, what remains undeniable about Bieber is the flexibility and character of his voice. There it was, winsome and tender during the smooth, winning “Hold Tight” off 2013’s “Journals,” and again on the otherwise-corny “Life Is Worth Living,” this last coming moments after he lay on a runway that extended into the crowd.
For more aurally aggressive versions of past hits such as “Boyfriend” and “As Long As You Love Me,” he pushed his vocal limits, but his voice shone brightest when Bieber pulled up a couch and an acoustic guitar for a spare, minor-key rendition of his Ed Sheeran-penned hit single “Love Yourself.”
It was only in November 2015 that Bieber was at Chicago’s Allstate Arena for an album-release event during which he answered questions, and spoke with seeming sincerity of his newfound maturity, faith and being a slave to his musical muse.
Sure, a few months of shows may have leavened dedication to the message and inspiration to perform his material, but when inclined — for both himself and his fans — to do the service of delivering the goods, Justin Bieber has the chops to give a truly striking performance.