The 20/20 Experience
Even for an artist as effortlessly sure-footed as Justin Timberlake, a seven-year absence can gravely upset the sense of balance.
The man behind two of this millennia’s most successful albums, 2002’s Justified and 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake looked to have fulfilled his musical ambitions and moved on. New challenges arose, notably film stardom, while a younger Justin claimed his crown.
Now he has returned, but the straightened hair is just one of his stylistic modifications. The 32-year-old has succumbed to an affliction that often affects major acts after a lengthy break – the compulsion to make your comeback record suitably epic – what we’ll call the Stone Roses syndrome.
The recent Dubai live debutants spent five years making an overblown, anticlimax of a second album, fuelled by Led Zeppelin, and Timberlake has endured a similar conversion. In a pre-release radio interview, he recalled his studio discussions: “If Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do 10-minute songs, and Queen can do 10-minute songs, then why can’t we?”
Well, the core fan base is different, and even prog-rock devotees might baulk at tracks that average at seven minutes each. Sadly, most fail to justify the
The uninspired recent single Mirrors, for example, clocks in at a frankly intimidating eight minutes, and while the quirky Spaceship Coupe and the mesmeric, electronic Blue Ocean Floor should be highlights, both drag exhaustively.
There are promising beats and hooks along the way, and that voice can still melt the oldest, coldest heart, but the endlessly repetitive grooves border on excessive self-indulgence. By the album’s 40-minute mark – with 30 still to negotiate – it’s sorely tempting to just dig out Justified instead.
A couple of sharper moments do hark back to classic Timberlake – the wonderfully danceable Suit & Tie and retro swing of That Girl – but The 20/20 Experience is chiefly an attempt at a more mature pop, with occasional nods to the progressive spirit of 1970s soul.
That’s most successfully achieved on the otherwise throwaway eight-minute track Strawberry Bubblegum, via a mood-changing coda that echoes prime-era Stevie Wonder. Unfortunately, many listeners will have skipped ahead by that point.
Timberlake – who co-produced with his regular collaborator Timbaland and newer blood J-Roc – did follow up those classic rock-related comments by suggesting that, “We’ll figure out the radio edits later”, so these interminable grooves may still receive a much-needed pruning. We just aren’t quite ready for prog-pop yet.