I was worried about this one, and I was mostly worried because “Suit & Tie” sounds less like a first single and more like a work of brand maintenance. Jay-Z’s indolent guest-verse was what really got the alarm bells ringing, mostly because it seemed to foretell Timberlake’s own version of Kingdom Come, Jay’s catastrophic attempt at an out-of-retirement mature album. Timberlake never formally announced a retirement the way Jay did, but he spent more time off in between albums than Jay spent during the time he was supposedly out of the game, and you could almost see the same forces at work, animating them. When Jay came back, he was sapped of all urgency and vitality and violence, instead extolling old-man values like he had this idea that this was what he should be doing. Timberlake, meanwhile, has been playing old-school bandleader on TV all month, strutting out in front of his own custom-designed bandstand with all the verve of an honors kid knocking out a homework assignment that he knows he can ace without even trying. FutureSex/LoveSounds, his last album, was a masterpiece of open-hearted, club-damaged cocaine disco, a complete miracle of a pop album that pushed song-form boundaries without abandoning the slippery, stinging melodies that had helped make Timberlake famous in the first place. After that, “Suit & Tie” sounded like a bored, years-late victory lap, and it promised nothing good. But I shouldn’t have worried. If we learn nothing else from The 20/20 Experience, let it be this: Justin Timberlake knows what he’s doing.
I should point out right now that The 20/20 Experience is nowhere near the album that FutureSex was. The hooks don’t pop and ripple the same ways, the sensibility is more staid and restful, and the whole thing seems less like JT’s attempt to remake pop music in his own image. Instead, it’s more of an opt-out, a sunny-afternoon grown-folks album about being in love and easing slowly into adulthood. Timbaland produced the entire album, which seemed like a weird decision despite his past magic with Timberlake, since the man has apparently lost all his mid-decade ability to rearrange grey matter and lapsed into his bodybuilding EDM desperation phase. But the Timbaland of 20/20 is one we haven’t heard before — a master of languorous sprawl, of warm string fugues and pillowy bass drones. Timbaland has always been a wizard of bending time, turning empty space into vivid shapes. But here, he does it in a different way, achieving a spaced-out quiet-storm dream state, giving Timberlake a millennial version of a Donny Hathaway record. Occasionally, he breaks into lusher, more ornately orchestrated versions of his old club grooves, and those are great. But his real achievement here is unlocking a mood — one of spending an entire lazy afternoon watching the Food Network with your head resting in the lap of the person you love — that he’s never come close to touching before.
This is completely Timberlake’s marriage album, his fuck-it-I’ll-be-boring-now album, in a good way. On Justified and FutureSex, he sounded like a young guy who’d suddenly realized that he could convince women to fuck him. 20/20, by contrast, sounds like the euphoric letting-go of all the stresses that come with convincing women to fuck you. Even when he’s singing about his suit, or about his sex-spaceship, or about wanting to dance, his voice sounds like a tranquil sigh. Timberlake’s tenor is a warm and fluid and expressive things, but one of his greatest strengths as a singer is the way he always sounds like a lost little kid. (This is why it was so weird to see him say “fuck” onstage in Austin so many times last weekend.) And so even when his lyrics are clumsy, which they almost always are, there’s a sweet puppydog vulnerability that sells everything completely. I wish the album had more songs like “Let The Groove Get In,” the dorkily stiff extended Afrobeat vamp that easily works as the album’s most physical track. But the album’s heart is in the retro-soul love-plea “That Girl” and the ambient string-flutters of “Blue Ocean Floor,” and those are fine places for its heart to be.
Despite its length (10 songs in 70 minutes), despite its lush and intricate production, despite its masterful and ornately planned promotional rollout, 20/20 is the first Timberlake album that feels purposefully minor in scope the first one that retreats rather than attacks. Timberlake has already confirmed that the album is simply the first half of a planned dualogy, like it was Kill Bill or something, so maybe that’s part of it. But I think it’s more that Timberlake sees casual excellence as one of the few worlds he hasn’t yet conquered. “Suit & Tie” aside, 20/20 doesn’t beg or demand to be liked. It’s content to unfurl in the background, its luxuriant intros and outros pushing song lengths north of six minutes, sprawling out on its own unhurried rhythms. It sounds like being happy in love, with nowhere to go an nothing to do. And if that sounds boring to you, then I submit to you that maybe you don’t know what that emotional place feels like. To me, it sounds like home.
The 20/20 Experience is out now on RCA.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Low’s warm and elegiac Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way.
• Marnie Stern’s bright, busy, pop-addled The Chronicles Of Marnia.
• Phosphorescent’s dusty, ambling free-spirited country-rocker Muchacho.
• William Tyler’s gorgeous, mythic instrumental guitar record Impossible Truth.
• Suede’s glammed-out, crunch-rocking reunion Bloodsports.
• Colleen Green’s sun-dazed, fuzzed-out Sock It To Me.
• KEN Mode’s harsh, merciless precision-hardcore album Entrench.
• Inter Arma’s bleary doom-psych sophomore effort Sky Burial.
• The Ocean Blue’s indie-pop comeback Ultramarine.
• Fol Chen’s enigmatic but relatively accessible The False Alarms.