Justin Bieber on stage in his ‘Purpose’ tour © Pieter-Jan Vanstockstraeten/Photonews by means of Getty Images
The final time Justin Bieber played the O2 Arena he kept his audience waiting two hours prior to gracing the stage. Young children wept, parents fretted about the last train, tempers frayed. Taxis circled the domed venue in its obscure peninsula fastness like vultures: a bonanza for London’s cabbies, but a blow for brand Bieber.
Three years later the controversial Canadian heartthrob is back at the O2 Arena for his “Purpose” tour. The first of six nights started on time. Lights strafed an elaborate stage structure, five backing musicians struck up a dramatic intro, dancers performed acrobatic moves. Then the primary attraction created his entry suspended in a Perspex box, captive in the public eye. He was singing “Mark My Words” and writing illegible messages in pen on the see-by way of walls of his cage.
His new tour is named soon after his most recent album Objective, a 4m-selling hit with a surprisingly powerful set of songs. These who dismiss the 22-year-old as a bratty purveyor of buying-mall schmaltz are out of date. The new Bieber, the one who starts shows on time, has been repurposed as a charming R&B-pop crooner. However for all his newfound credibility he seemed only fitfully engaged at the O2.
The show was designed as slick arena entertainment, a busily choreographed affair with subsidiary stages, hydraulic platforms and extravagant visuals and lighting. Bieber cut an oddly remote figure amid the action. The former kid star exhibited neither nervous energy nor pleasure at being on stage. As an alternative he came across as a brooding but rather blank figure.
Some of his street-dance methods with the 12-strong troupe of dancers were crisp, others had been lackadaisical. His singing was great when the microphone was switched on, a persuasive higher tenor. But he produced tiny work to hide the fact that he was miming at other instances, typically throughout strenuous dance-pop numbers, a widespread sufficient arena-pop deceit despite the fact that normally practised with far more artfulness. Songs ended with him turning his back on the audience as though broadcasting his apartness.
A 20-minute interval threatened to sabotage any momentum that had been constructed up, as did a long drum solo that the singer permitted himself shortly right after resuming (“You guys nonetheless with me tonight?”). But the second half brought a far more committed Bieber.
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“I really feel that I just drunk a bunch of caffeine and I’m prepared to go,” he announced, belatedly coming to life with a caffeinated, drum-heavy version of his old puppy-really like hit “Baby”. He departed from the script to quiz fans in the front row about the meaning of enjoy, only to acquire such unsatisfactory responses — they mostly loved him — that one particular almost felt sorry for the philosophical Bieber.
Objective’s title track followed, sung with genuine feeling but the sense of connection was fleeting. “Make confident you focus on your goal,” he declared following an encore with “Sorry”, a catchy, curiously apt note of contrition with which to finish. If only Bieber had followed his personal suggestions more consistently tonight.