A track-by-track first listen preview thing of Justin Timberlake’s album (which has been online for a week)
First listen: Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience
LOL. I went to hear the album The 20/20 Experience by former be-permed *NSYNC frontman Justin ‘Trousersnake’ Timberlake about sixteen months ago in a (s)wanky club in London. ‘JT’ was there for a bit. He seemed a bit bored, which was appropriate. A man from the record label told us we were privileged to be hearing the album and that we couldn’t tweet about it etc etc and so on. There was a date when we would be able to post our ‘thoughts’ online (March 4), which came and went and was then changed to today (THE FRIDAY BEFORE THE ALBUM IS RELEASED. LIKE, ‘HELLO’). Anyway, while that in itself is ‘quite annoying’ it wasn’t really helped by the fact that the whole album was dumped on iTunes for the entire world to hear on Monday and yet we still weren’t allowed to say ‘it’s a bit long, isn’t it’ in a public forum. Well, the day has come. Finally, humanity will get to read my musings on the whole thing. What a day.
Pusher Love Girl
Sporting a massive coat, scarf and wooly hat, and looking like he’s about to leave as soon as he’s arrived, Justin Timberlake’s ushered into a swanky club in central London to have a very quick chat about his first album since 2006. He jokingly refers to it as “mediocre” (or at least we thought he was joking) before ending the speech with “I’ll just shut the fuck up now”. With that, he’s off and the album starts with a dramatic string flourish that heralds the classy Pusher Love Girl (debuted at the Grammys last month), which slinks along over a bed of sampled vocal tics, warm bursts of organ and a smattering of funk guitar. Having previously warned everyone that the average song length on the album is about seven minutes, the song sort of just plods along nicely but aimlessly, Justin utilising that falsetto of his to deliver lines like “won’t you be my dealer, babe” and “junkie for your love”. Two-thirds of the way through the song morphs into something that sounds a little more modern, with big drum claps erupting around some of Justin’s trademark beatboxing. It’s a fairly low-key opening, but hopes are high that there’s a SexyBack-style banger coming soon enough.
Unfortunately first single Suit & Tie doesn’t quite fulfil that brief, although in the context of the album its measured, classily old school feel makes more sense. Nothing, however, can save Jay-Z’s woeful cameo, which still sounds like he wandered in from a different song altogether. Still, as with most songs on the album, the final coda is really very good.
Don’t Hold The Wall
Right, lyrically we’re in a club setting, this must be the banger. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, which features an incessant, industrial-style beat, the BPM remains frustratingly low. Justin’s vocals are oddly buried deep in the mix for the verses, and the chorus (“dance, don’t hold the wall”) is intoned robotically by producer Timbaland (whose work on the album, incidentally, is his best in years, which unfortunately isn’t saying much). The main issue with the album so far is that it finds an interesting idea – a drum loop, a beat, a vocal tic – and just repeats it over and over, teasing the listener into thinking something is about to happen but rarely fulfilling that promise. Once again, however, the song shifts midway through, with the beats getting heavier and murkier with a low-end bassline rattling the champagne glasses.
Justin obviously wants The 20/20 Experience to be enjoyed as an album and not cherry-picked for singles, which is sort of fair enough, but as the languid, ’60s soul-influenced Strawberry Bubblegum sashays out of the speakers there’s a definite sense that the whole thing could really do with a change in tempo. Mind you, there’s still time. It’s also clear that Justin’s really very happy being married and loves his new wife very very much, which again is lovely, but part of me wants him to be bitter about Britney still. The most interesting thing about this one – and at about ten minutes long, you have to take what you can get – is when Timbaland does a fairly comical Barry White impression, while Justin talks about how Jessica Biel’s vagina is like bubblegum.
A possible third single. Once again, this one’s a bit more groove lead and deals with the complex issue of loving a beautiful woman so much that you can’t take your eyes off her (the chorus is “I got that tunnel vision for you”), which perhaps explains the huge optometric headgear on the album cover. It’s one of the catchier songs on the album, not least because it seems to have a discernible chorus and some sort of dynamic to it, with the strings giving it a nice melodic lift. Again, it all shifts into gear in the final third as Justin sings “zoom zoom” over a strange tapestry of beats that sound like they’re going in reverse. But that section then goes on for about four more minutes, which makes the novelty of the sudden change up ebb away faster than you can say ‘please let there be a song as good as Cry Me A River’.
Recalling the FutureSex/LoveSounds ballad Until The End Of Time, Spaceship Coupé slows things down even more and utilises a pretty laboured lyrical metaphor about his lady friend being from outer space: “She’s so amazing, she’s out of space”, he croons throughout. He also states that he’d like to “make love on the moon”, which seems dangerous but what do I know. Brilliantly, when everyone’s about to slip into a red wine-induced coma there’s a comically amazing guitar solo that erupts from nowhere and sounds like something Slash would have thought too OTT in the early 90s. There’s also a moment late on where Timbaland opens his box of vocal-tics-as-beats – the one that gave us the baby cries that pepper Aaliyah’s Are You That Somebody? - to create what sounds like robots crying during sex, which is quite the image.
Early rumours suggested this was due to be the next single and featured Drake and was, apparently, a bit of a banger. It really isn’t. It opens with a short skit introducing “JT and the Tennesse Kids” before unfurling into a sort of 60s soul throwback, complete with horn section and a light, percussive beat. If there were a video he would be wearing spats. The song does at least have a catchy chorus of “I’m in love with that girl, so don’t be mad at me”, which Justin delivers with a cheeky shrug.
Let The Groove Get In
Right, here we go. It’s a song with the word groove in the title and Justin loves to dance so this must be the balls out banger, surely? It starts with a distorted Justin asking: “Are you comfortable, let the groove get in”. Exciting. From there a Samba-esque beat kicks in and there are some head nods from the assorted guests. Someone taps their toe for a bit. Unfortunately, as with most of the album, the song never delivers on its early promise, the drum loop just hanging there monotonously. Midway through, the song opens out a bit and feels more relaxed, Justin settling into a nice falsetto groove and, you imagine, having a bit of a dance in the recording booth. Again, it could have done with an edit given that it just sort of drifts along like one long fade-out.
Initially given away free to anyone that pre-ordered the album on iTunes, and currently sitting pretty at Number One, Mirrors is by far and away the best song on the album, so much so that it’s presence so low down on the tracklisting feels like some sort of test of endurance. Utilising a similar percussive beat he and Timbaland have used on Cry Me A River and What Goes Around…, it manages to look at the subject of love in a more interesting way, with Justin imagining he and his wife as two sides of the same person. There’s a great bit during the middle eight where Justin sings “yesterday was history, tomorrow’s a mystery” with a passion that’s sort of been missing from the rest of the album. Even the coda seems to work, with the song shifting from an almost boyband-esque mid-paced ballad, to an oddly compelling, futuristic-sounding funk workout, Justin intoning “you are the love of my life” to hammer home how happy he is.
Blue Ocean Floor
It’s hard to shake the sense that Justin’s record label were so excited to hear he was coming back that no one actually bothered to have a listen to what he was up to or perhaps tell him that nine-minute long songs aren’t necessarily what people want from a Justin Timberlake album. Blue Ocean Floor, which weirdly recalls Radiohead circa-In Rainbows, just sort of drifts along pleasantly over some more reverse beats and expensive-sounding strings. It seems to be about escaping to a nice private island with your actress wife and gazing blissfully into the clear blue sea, which is something I think we can all relate to.