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The last time Justin Bieber played the O2 Arena he kept his audience waiting two hours before gracing the stage. 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 began on time. Lights strafed an elaborate stage structure, five backing musicians struck up a dramatic intro, dancers performed acrobatic moves. Then the main attraction made 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-through walls of his cage.
His new tour is named after his latest album Purpose, a 4m-selling hit with a surprisingly strong set of songs. Those who dismiss the 22-year-old as a bratty purveyor of shopping-mall schmaltz are out of date.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. Yet 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 child star exhibited neither nervous energy nor pleasure at being on stage. Instead he came across as a brooding but rather blank figure.
Some of his street-dance steps with the 12-strong troupe of dancers were crisp, others were lackadaisical. His singing was good when the microphone was switched on, a persuasive high tenor. But he made little effort to hide the fact that he was miming at other times, generally during strenuous dance-pop numbers, a common enough arena-pop deceit although normally practised with 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 built up, as did a long drum solo that the singer allowed himself shortly after resuming (“You guys still with me tonight?”). But the second half brought a more committed Bieber.
“I feel that I just drunk a bunch of caffeine and I’m ready to go,” he announced, belatedly coming to life with a caffeinated, drum-heavy version of his old puppy-love hit “Baby”. He departed from the script to quiz fans in the front row about the meaning of love, only to receive such unsatisfactory responses — they mainly loved him — that one almost felt sorry for the philosophical Bieber.
Purpose’s title track followed, sung with genuine feeling; but the sense of connection was fleeting. “Make sure you focus on your purpose,” he declared following an encore with “Sorry”, a catchy, curiously apt note of contrition with which to end. If only Bieber had followed his own advice more consistently tonight.