Bieber fever continues to dominate the pop world. With multiple platinum albums under his belt, Justin Bieber returns this week with his fifth studio set, Under the Mistletoe, which is predicted to be another mountainous Billboard 200 landing. The 17-year-old Canadian born pop singer takes as many risks a teenager can take with several of Christmas’ favorite classics, including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want is You.” One would expect Mistletoe to be a half-hearted attempt to carve out an iconic place next to the great legends that have come before. However, Bieber proves he is a mainstay in the industry by crafting a highly energetic and expressive album that is filled to the brim with eggnog flavored treats, ranging from straight up pop and R&B to country.
The opening track, “Only Thing I Ever Get for Christmas,” cowritten by Bieber with Christopher Stewart, Aaron Pearce, and Tim Miner, is a sweet and delicious ode to his girlfriend. With his tender vocals, Bieber croons and melts the hearts of ever teen girl across America. “Thing,” with bells and a light pop beatboxing, channels his inner magic maker. Despite being a little heavy handed, Bieber obviously understands how to master clever hooks.
“Mistletoe,” the lead single written by Nasri Atweh and Adam Messinger, dives head first into a sleigh bell-decorated and guitar-driven sensibility. “The wisemen followed the star like I followed my heart,” Bieber sings around the one minute and twenty-six second mark. The listener can easily get lost in a perfectly engineered world that hits the right musical spot much like a hot cup of cocoa. Bieber’s vocals have matured, as is evidenced throughout Mistletoe, and on the title track he explores his lower register unlike in any performance before. This allows him to dig within his artistic psyche to deliver something quite magical, even throwing in some “shawty” for good measure.
The first Christmas standard Bieber tackles on this set turns out to be “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” which was written in 1944 by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. It was later recorded for the first time in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio, and then later again by Cole himself, and has been named the most performed Christmas song by BMI. As a duet with R&B staple and mentor Usher, Bieber reinvents “Chestnuts” into a sweeping and charming recording that fits snuggly by the roaring fire that is the modern era. An electric guitar solo takes a simple performance and rachets up the ante to manipulate a stellar album cut.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” a rockin’ jingle bell-infused number, was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and first performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934. In roughly three minutes and thirty seconds, Bieber is able to vocally soar and break out in a little dance number all at once. The arrangement is thick with clapping, drums, and cymbals, which only enhance a freewheeling performance. Bieber has mentioned in numerous recent interviews how Mistletoe is his best album to date, and he is not kidding around. Just when you think he will bob to and fro, he surprises you and weaves instead. As a mark of an innovative artist, Bieber takes what made the original so special and truly makes it his own. Bravo!
The legendary R&B group Boyz II Men lend their warm vocals to “Fa La La, ” which was penned by Bieber with Adonis Shropshire and Bernard Harvey. A 1990′s playbook anthem sparks a lull in an album that could have been well served without, but as with previous tracks, Bieber is relentless with his R&B stylings and phrasing. Boyz II Men first begin on background vocals, and then take off on one of the verses. Recently, the Biebs and the Boyz appeared on Dancing with the Stars to perform this thumping track, which will be the second single from Mistletoe.
To talk about Christmas classics, you cannot forget to mention Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which was released on November 1, 1994 as the lead single off her fourth studio album, Merry Christmas. It seems it all is coming full circle as Carey duets with Bieber in a reinvention of the fun-loving uptempo track on an album that happened to drop on November 1, 2011. Unlike the original, the delicate intro lyrics are axed in favor of jumping straight to the cheery and melodic swing tempo section. Bieber’s mature and blossoming vocals are rightfully showcased next to veteran Carey.
“Drummer Boy,” featuring rapper Busta Rhymes, is flipped and tossed in a way never imagined before. Given a techno and synthesized overhaul, “Boy” fits Bieber like a glove. Around the 45-second mark, the track morphs into a clever rap-injected mashup which allows him to drop rhymes at a rate of twenty per second, it seems. Rhymes then busts out his similarly catchy lyrics. The pairing might seem rather odd on paper, but both Bieber and Rhymes spark such creative surges within each other that it makes one wonder why they did not collaborate on this song sooner. This performance strays quite distantly from the original, but that is OK. Bieber has certainly hit his stride. He even raps about giving to charity; especially during these devastating economic times, he proves his big heart and passion in giving back.
After a satisfyingly over the top “Boy,” the next track, “Christmas Eve,” crafted with Chris Brown, Antwan Thompson, Jerrol Wizzard, and Kevin McCall, is a cool and relaxed effort that gives the listener (and Bieber) time to breathe. His vibrant phrasing is highlighted here, and perhaps this track could have been a sparkling duet with Brown. Surely, that will come with time. “Kissing underneath the tree. I don’t need no presents girl, you’re everything I need,” Bieber sings.
“All I Want is You,” a finger-snapping and jingle bell-like good time, was written by Bieber with Brandon ‘Blue’ Hamilton. Much in the same vein as Carey’s iconic tune, “You” is Bieber’s way of saying he does not want any presents for Christmas. The track does not venture into any new territory, but it is clear he is attempting to craft his own classic, which he pulls off admirably. In only three minutes and thirty seconds, Bieber tells a convincing “I’m sorry” story to a forlorn lover.
The album highlight, surprisingly, is a duet with Country superstars, The Band Perry, on “Home This Christmas.” The track, which was penned with Atweh, Nick Turpin, George Nozuka, and Melanie Fontana, is Bieber’s first country recording. Kimberly Perry, matched with Bieber’s pop-leaning voice, provides the right amount of delicate tenderness to tell the story. “You should be here with me, safe and warm,” they croon. Backed with sleigh bells, “Home” is a pleading anthem about love and longing. If Bieber ever wants to do a full length studio country album, he would be right at “home.”
Instead of closing out an impressive set with a boisterous number, Bieber instead shows overwhelming restraint with a touching “Silent Night.” Unlike most tracks on Mistletoe, the arrangement is vastly sparse, allowing him to fully show his vocal ability. Sometimes, less is more. Bieber pours his emotion and storytelling nature into it to catapult the intimate atmosphere into a truly wonderful performance.
Must Listens: “Mistletoe,” “All I Want for Christmas is You,” “Drummer Boy,” “Home This Christmas,” “Silent Night”
Rating: **** out of five