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.
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.