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Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

The 20/20 Experience isn’t a poor album, it simply suffers from desperately wanting to be more than the sum of its parts.

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In preparation for my review I wrote the words “lavish” “classy” “clean” “bassy” and “falsetto” down on a notepad in front of me. I hadn’t actually listened to The 20/20 Experience yet, I was merely preparing myself. The preparation proved to be apt.

“Pusher Love Girl” – the opener. A vanilla affair that begins with rising West Side Story string arrangements that give way to a funky staccato beat with that unmistakable Timbaland low-end. Lyrics are the regular fair – not having changed much since Justified – hey mama this, your daddy that. The soaring production then takes a trajectory that leaves the track smouldering on the ground. The lyrics turn to a litany and you start wishing somebody would just cut the beat already. It establishes a theme that is explored throughout the rest of the album.

Following pop album convention, track number two is the lead single “Suit & Tie.” It throws a sly curveball, opening with a repetitive pitched-down hook in the vein of A$AP Rocky, by the guy who invented the sphere that Rocky so desperately wants to enter. “You ready JT?” asks a voice, and a jumpy, xylophone-accentuated beat drops and JT slides into his Prince falsettos. Jay-Z makes a forgettable cameo rapping a crummy verse about nothing in particular. “Years of distress, tears on the dress / Trying to hide her face with some make up sex,” “Tell your mother that I love her cause I love you / Tell your father we go farther as a couple.” Huh?

“Don’t Hold The Wall” is a true highlight, a pounding gamelan beat, trademark 808 bass and a catchy hook whose true creativity lies in inventing a new metaphor for not dancing. Though as is symptomatic of the album as a whole, it begins to meander in the middle and follows the uncertain path to the end of the track. The first three minutes are solid. There’s something sinister in the beat, too. No one can make having fun sound like serious business quite like JT. But even the gorgeous beat is nothing we haven’t heard before.

It concerns me that two people who’ve been working together for as long as Timberlake and Timbaland have, and who have so much creative chemistry, can’t seem to push each other in to any new and interesting territories. You can almost imagine them, standing beside one another, holding up a large map and awkwardly looking at each other because every location on it has been crossed out in black Sharpie. Been there.

“Strawberry Bubblegum”—the title tells you everything you need to know, right? “Don’t ever change your flavour ’cause I love the taste / And if you ask me where I wanna go, I say all the way” Yep, you knew that was coming. “And it all started when she said / Hey hey hey, smacking that strawberry bubblegum / You really got me when you said / Hey hey hey, popping that strawberry bubblegum.” This is the kind of music that the BangBros. put on when they’re trying to sleep with girls that aren’t in the industry.

Four tracks in, it seems Timbaland neglected to load the “hooks” preset into ProTools, but something tells me that might’ve been intentional. This album isn’t about hooks, or melodies, or singles, it’s about rhythm – beautiful, danceable, excessive, repetitive, I-really-wish-it-would-end-already rhythm. By the time “Tunnel Vision” comes around, I’m checking the tracklist to see how far through I am. Track number five…I could’ve sworn I should be at like, track eight or something. The dead freight tacked on to every song makes itself very apparent.

Each song comes with a tacked-on, extended, polyrhythmic jam session – like Black Sabbath, only the audience for this album isn’t on psychedelics…or are they? It’s hard to tell. This is one of the puzzling things about The 20/20 Experience: Who is the audience for this album? FutureSex/LoveSounds was seven years ago. The ‘N Sync fans – tweens before such a word even existed – were well into puberty and Justin was there to corner their market before JC Chasez had even booked studio time. Together with Timbaland, Timberlake foretold the next decade of pop music – a debauched, club-optimised, synth-heavy cacophony – and almost a decade later, Timberlake returns to the GaGasphere that he helped seed. His fans are now even older and the new album, while pure JT, is not FutureSex/LoveSounds or a sequel to it.There’s no “SexyBack” on this one. I’m left wondering, who will be filling those arenas for JT to work his ass off for? They certainly won’t be empty.

The 20/20 Experience is a tome of excess—proof that if you’ve got the cash, your twenties can end when you damn well feel like it. But the album’s greatest excess, by far, is its length. There isn’t a track under four minutes and the album is peppered with songs in the seven minute range. Therein lies the problem. One of the first skills that one develops as a writer is how to craft a simple, declarative sentence. Often your commas should really be full stops, your next sentence should be the beginning of a new paragraph and so on. The leaner your writing, the better, and with an investment of time and toil, you eventually develop the faculties to recognise where you’ve strayed. The same rules should apply to pop music.

There are a couple of solid tracks that don’t subsequently bludgeon themselves to death. “That Girl,” which lays a subtle electro beat amongst live instrumentation is reminiscent of the neo-soul of Charles Bradley and The Heavy. JT’s take is silky smooth, with lyrics no dumber than what the aforementioned have to offer.

The second banger, “Let the Groove Get In,” is “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” It’s hard to comprehend any scenario in which both Timberlake and his producer weren’t conscious of the resemblance. It’s inescapable. Unexpectedly however, at around the 2:30 mark, it starts dropping hints of its own personality, with a syncopated salsa-infused piano riff. It ends on a glorious note, utilising the piano, keeping its own best interests in mind, accentuating the keys with a chorus of Justins easing you into the next track.

Timberlake has talent as a pop star, an actor and as a sketch performer, but certainly not as a wordsmith. His metaphors and analogies usually stumble awkwardly, leaving you wondering if it would be rude to cringe. Sometimes the stumbling is cute and well-meaning, like a baby deer taking its first steps: “Aren’t you somethin’ to admire / ’cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror / And I can’t help but notice / You reflect in this heart of mine.” But most often it’s like that drunk guy at the club, flailing his arms as he dances, who should know by now what that fourth Jagerbomb will do to him: “If you’d be my strawberry bubblegum / Then I’d be your blueberry lollipop.” But while some of Timberlake’s musings are crude and ham-handed, the man is never starchy or unlikeable. He reminds you of the party host you don’t really know, who doesn’t seem like the brightest chap, but whose charisma and relentless efforts to make you feel at home make you want to stick around and laugh at his awkward jokes.

I’ve heard that I should be in awe of the scope and audacity of the music on this album. But I don’t have to do shit. If nothing interesting is happening then I’m not going to sit stupefied by some violin trills over a sophisticatedly-sequenced beat. You see, The 20/20 Experience isn’t a poor album, it simply suffers from desperately wanting to be more than the sum of its parts. The ambulant beats and Timberlake’s laid-back professionalism combine to create consistent peaks that ascend above the mire, but The 20/20 Experience is, ultimately, an Icarian effort.

(RCA Records)

Reviews

Hatchie – Keepsake

Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars

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Hatchie Keepsake

Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.

There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.

However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.

The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.

(Heavenly Recordings)

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