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Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience Laurie Tuffrey , March 18th, 2013 08:46

In the flurry of big-name returns announced at the start of the year, the musical re-emergence of loverman extraordinaire Justin Timberlake was, arguably, one of the biggest. He's been away from music for seven years since his second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, pursuing his acting career, putting in a nice turn with 2010's David Fincher-directed The Social Network, and whipping up some fine self-parody with The Lonely Island.

Then, with a melodrama-freighted teaser clip of Timberlake walking through studio corridors, he announced his return in January, declaiming "somebody asked me the other day, 'so are you just done with music?' It means more to me than anybody else in the world [...] I'm ready." Ever the showman, you have to tip your hat (he'd prefer it to be a trilby, thanks very much) to the man for some deft engineering of his own hype here.

Now, two months later, we've got the finished product, The 20/20 Experience, so-named because one of his friends told him "this is music that you can see". And that's about right: the visual aspect does certainly play a big part here. The thing is, Timberlake is the consummate pop star, so much so he's practically incandescent. He could probably, at any time and in any place, click his fingers and a glass of champagne would materialise in his other hand, and you wouldn't think that it was cheesy because it would just be impressive. He's probably good at magic tricks as well. And the record is, appropriately, slick, with a visual aesthetic that's old-style Hollywood glamour (have a look at Fincher's video for first single 'Suit & Tie'), and this is, initially at least, the guiding light for the music.

It opens up with a streaming torrent of strings, some serious show-biz-a-ness, chomped-cigar-bits-on-the-Paramount-lot type of stuff, ushering in 'Pusher Love Girl', the first of many paeans to the lady in his life. The Hollywood orchestra step out for a moment, and a slow funk groove emerges. Or, rather, Timberlake would've liked it to be a funk groove, but sadly, it's more of a plod, which is the first indicator of an album that essentially fails to ignite. In spite of a plethora of Michael Jackson vocal adornings coming from all corners, it feels like we're going through the motions. And this goes on for a watch-checking eight minutes.

But he makes a good go of redemption with track two, 'Suit & Tie'. In spite of the initial reticence surrounding the single, this is stone cold brilliance. It starts in half-time, with syncopated brass and the showman-charmer's declaration of "let me show you a few things", tripped out over a slowed-down tiger growl — the cheesiest thing Timberlake's managed to make sound sexy here, later matched by the rhythmic submarine sonar — which breaks into ineffable soul, with dextrous bass and jammy guitar fills across the board, and decked out with a tropicalia rhythm section. Even Jay-Z's product placement rap has a charm to it by the time he reaches the final couplet.

But unfortunately, with an appropriately filmic, best-part's-in-the-trailer irony, it seems like Timberlake gave away too much by making 'Suit & Tie' the first glimpse of the record. From hereon in, it's a fairly dull affair. Things work fairly well when Timberlake reins in his suite of producers — old associate Timbaland, along with big-hitters J-Roc and The Y's — and opts for a sparser sound. 'Don't Hold The Wall' and the spacious, strings-graced 'Strawberry Bubblegum' (though no man of 32 should be able to get away with song titles like 'Strawberry Bubblegum' and, later, 'Spaceship Coupe' — 'Spaceship Coupe'?!) both do so, but 'Tunnel Love's clattering beat, even though it reanimates the claustrophobic allure of Timber/Timba's trademark coupling of saturated kickdrum/beatboxing, just feels like a pale approximation of the Timberlake of old.

There is progression, though, which here means looking backwards sonically to the sound of Motown, in the form of the Tennessee Kids, his razor-sharp new live band. They're the ones that lift 'Suit & Tie', and it takes until 'That Girl', halfway through the album's side two, for them to be brought forward again. And when they do, the effect is unshakeable: following a 'Señorita'-style spoken word club intro, they slide in with the utter swagger and panache of 70s studio sessioners, laying down a slow groove over which Timberlake puts in best vocal turn on the record.

Frustratingly, this is immediately tarnished by the next track, 'Let The Groove Get In', an irksomely unimaginative attempt at a salsa band-oriented dancefloor-filler. Timberlake opens it up with a chorus hook that drives the song, but isn't interesting enough to last for its seven-minute-plus length. He asks, again and again, "are you comfortable right there, right there?" to which the only fitting response seems to be "I'm fine thanks, Justin, just a bit bored". Admittedly, things do pick up when a choppy guitar emerges over some melodramatic pianos and he layers up some rich harmonised vocals, but it doesn't quite do enough to rescue the song. Likewise with second single 'Mirrors', which follows: widescreen and stadium-bound, yes, but just overlong and devoid of lasting appeal.

It's hard not to think comparatively when listening to the record, and Timberlake sets himself a hard task in this way. There's nothing here as monumental as 'Cry Me A River' or 'My Love'. Listen to 'Like I Love You', and the simplicity of the vocal hook, the guitar riff and the outro breakdown ("[pause] drums!") combine to make something that achieves everything The 20/20 Experience doesn't, and in half the time. There aren't enough (if any) falsetto squeals, too few "I just want to love you baaaabe!"s.

The problem is perhaps that there isn't anything that's remotely dark or sexual on the album. Weirdly, Timberlake's comparable to those artists and bands that do their best work when in the hell of a drugs and/or drink addiction. Now that he's happily married and declaring "you are the love of my life" through a surprisingly effective duck quack vocal effect (once again: good, but mystifyingly so) and the knotty entanglements of love are a thing of the past, something brilliant has been lost. Even on closer 'Blue Ocean Floor', the closest Timberlake comes to losing love, built on strafing, reversed synth lines (the current sonic watermark for sincerity), a slow-burner with a keening vocal turn, the effect is less damaged and hurting, more earnest and reparative. As he sings on 'Mirrors', "so now I say goodbye to the old me, it's already gone" and it feels like he's imbuing it with a sort of redemptive relief, but one that's hard for the listener to share in. Granted, Timberlake brought sexy back in 2006, but it would have been nice if he could have brought it with him this time.