Review: Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience”

No doubt the reader is familiar with Justin Timberlake — his profitable stint with N’Sync, the two solo albums that built up surprising amounts of critical respect for the former boy-band member, his later sojourn into film acting and Saturday Night Live gigs — so no introduction is necessary.

Suffice it to say that his new ten-song opus, “The 20/20 Experience,” stands tall as one of the most highly-anticipated pop albums in the past few years. Released in accompaniment with a torrent of publicity and marketing tie-ins, it is also one of the most hyped.

What is most surprising about the album is that it occupies a space at the fringes of what could reasonably be called “pop music.” Most of the songs run over seven minutes, swirling with digitally-processed chants, bursting with instrumental interludes, and spiked with mid-song u-turns.

Those pining for more immediately gratifying pop hooks might be mystified by the slow-burning complexity Timberlake opts for. Unusual sonic elements, like the string sections and bass parts in “Pusher Love Girl,” have been manipulated so that they mesh together in tight layers.

As a consequence, most of the album rewards careful attention and repeated listens. Most of the sound matter and forms here will be familiar to those who have heard his previous album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” only opened up and expanded.

Songs that exemplify this aesthetic expansion include the opening song (the aforementioned “Pusher Love Girl”) and the darker bhangra-driven “Don’t Hold the Wall.” With his voice sounding vulnerable and the beats rumbling menacingly below, the song holds the appeal of direct, simple lyrics and more complex instrumental virtues.

It is a simple request, as Timberlake quietly insists “Dance. Don’t hold the wall,” but the sentiment, and the song, undergoes a metamorphosis after four minutes, finishing with a swaying, bass-heavy ending. The craft is immaculate, so that even with thin lyrical premises the songs overflow with ideas.

Most unusually of all, the album, which has jumped around from classy, if sugary, innuendo (“Strawberry Bubblegum”) to cosmic love songs featuring psychedelic guitar solos (“Spaceship Coupe”), ends with a quiet, brooding song called “Blue Ocean Floor.”

With a backwards track and soft piano forming the basis of the rhythm, the song drifts and meanders, Timberlake pulling off delicate vocal passages with requisite skill. Its lyrics might be the most substantive of the lot as well. “Frequencies so low/Heart on a string/A string that only plays solos/Rain made of echoes/Tidal wave rushing on and on.”

His songwriting never quite escapes the clutches of cliche, but the sophistication of the music and his mastery of pop vocal technique renders those flaws, to this reviewer, of secondary importance. The song slowly unfolds, leaving plenty of space and radiating an ingratiating warmth lacking in many of the other songs.