In the six years between Justin Timberlake’s crowd-pleasing classic, FutureSex/LoveSounds
, and his latest album, The 20/20 Experience
, Justin Timberlake acted in movies, spent a lot of time with Jessica Biel, stopped spending time with Jessica Biel, then started spending time with Jessica Biel, again. Then suddenly, out of the blue Timberlake and Biel were married and there was a new album on the way.
The first thing critics and audiences will notice about Timberlake’s latest opus is that it’s, well, an opus. The album’s ten tracks clock in at right around seventy minutes. Only two of the album’s songs, “Suit & Tie,” and “That Girl,” are shorter than six minutes. Only “That Girl” is shorter than five. In this regard, The 20/20 Experience
is anti-pop. How can radio stations program these songs? How can an audience, rumored for decades by armchair pop-psychologists to have ever-shrinking attention spans, digest a single seven or eight minute song, let alone an album full of them?
Some critics will probably take issue with Timberlake’s lack of discipline and editing, will read the lengths of the album and its songs as arrogance and needless bravado. After only two listens, I took to Twitter and declared that The 20/20 Experience
was a fine album in need of, you guessed it, editing. The Latin-inflected “Let the Groove Get In,” I said, while a fine song, didn’t fit the album one bit, and should have been excised from the final product, along with about ten minutes of outros and breakdowns from the other songs. In the heat of the moment I firmly believed that The 20/20 Experience
was one of those all-too-common inventions of the post-CD era: a good enough seventy-minute album that could have been a forty-minute masterpiece.
I was wrong.
There’s no way around the fact that The 20/20 Experience
is made up of long songs. Repetitive, trance-like songs. Songs made up of movements
. In a much-quoted (and quite misleading) answer to a question about song lengths on The 20/20 Experience
, Timberlake suggested that he had set out to make long songs and because Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were “allowed” to make long songs, that so to should Justin Timberlake be allowed to make long songs. That some listeners might understand this response to mean that Timberlake set out to make long songs for the sake of making long songs is understandable. And, if that were Timberlake’s only reasoning behind the album’s immense songs, then the songs’ lengths could be troublesome. Nobody likes long songs because they are long. In fact, more often than not, audiences enjoy long songs in spite of
their length. Alternately, some might infer from Timberlake’s flippant response that he was trying to make long songs only to lend his pop the kind of weight that rockist listeners and critics attribute to classic rock songs by the likes of Floyd and Zeppelin. Here’s the thing: both of the above readings of Timberlake’s comment rest on the assumption that his songs aren’t long for actual reasons when, in fact, Timberlake’s long songs find productive uses for every second of their run times.
Consider album opener “Pusher Love Girl,” a dazzling, sustained burst of soulful funk. The song opens with a brief orchestral fanfare that could have been lifted straight off a Golden Age Hollywood love film. The strings merge slickly into a bouncy groove that drives most of the song’s first movement. Here, the lyrics are sweet: “Hey little Mama,” Timberlake sings, “I love this high we’re onto.” The pusher/drug metaphor here is sweet, almost cloying. Dig a little deeper and the metaphor can turn dark, but for now it stays well within the boundaries of pop music’s expectations. About halfway through the song, the strings return for a brief interlude that segues into a new, slightly tweaked funk vamp. When Timberlake steps back to the mic, his vocals are a bit edgier: through mild distortion, and against a backdrop of vocal hooks (“I’m just a ju-ju-ju-ju-junkie for your love.”) Timberlake sings, “My heroine. My cocaine. My plum wine. My MDMA . . . Now I can’t wait ‘till I get home and get you in my veins.” The metaphor hasn’t been driven entirely dark, but by acknowledging the gritty reality of the song’s central metaphor, “Pusher Love Girl” is acknowledging both the euphoria and withdrawal of addiction, which translates to an acknowledgement of both the euphoria and sometimes frightening compulsion caused by love. Most impressive, though, is that Timberlake achieves this dual acknowledgement without ever making “Pusher Love Girl” feel
heavy. The song isn’t meant to make us think about the joy and pain of love, or any other such nonsense, but it embodies
both of these attitudes in a slick pop package.
“Strawberry Bubblegum” employs a similar structure, the song’s first half riding an ice cold groove as Timberlake seduces an off-screen interlocutor who he met, “when she said, ‘hey,’” while “popping that strawberry bubblegum.” The song’s first half is sexy and intimate, a fine song, but nothing particularly surprising from Timberlake. Where the song earns its legs is in its second half, which reintroduces the song’s titular gum as a symbol of personal affection over a groove of warm electric piano and a beat that sounds pre-programmed from some grandmother’s Lowrey organ. Here, Timberlake slides back toward a sweeter sensibility: “If you’ll be my strawberry bubblegum, then I’ll be your blueberry body pie.” It’s not as if the outro’s refrain isn’t at all sexual, but the emphasis has shifted towards a more innocent, playful expression of that sexuality.
Elsewhere, Timberlake extends his songs with prolonged codas that double as emotional climaxes. “Tunnel Vision,” a harrowing and dramatic song about alienation and obsession, builds on trance inducing repetition until its final coda when the rhythms fall away and Timberlake repeats the song’s chorus over strings. Then there is the finale to “Mirrors,” the album’s big-pop anthem that dissolves into an outro that doubles as the album’s emotional climax (and please hold that thought, we’re going to come back to it).
I understand why some people might be put out by an album full of long pop
songs, but here’s the thing—sure, The 20/20 Experience
is built around long songs, but those songs are long for a reason. The repetition on songs like “Tunnel Vision,” and “Hold the Wall” creates an uncanny tension, as if Timberlake is spinning pop versions of Neu songs, while the segmented songs mix tones and themes to better express the depth of experience that Timberlake is trying to communicate. Now, let that last sentence sink in for a second because there is something important in it: Timberlake is trying to communicate a feeling
. The songs on The 20/20 Experience
aren’t just randomly collected club bangers and love jams. These songs find Timberlake trying to communicate something specific about love, and to that end he has created a series of larger-than-life songs, monuments of sound, all designed in an attempt to contain the uncontainable joy, ecstasy, and heartache of love. If we think about it that way, four minute songs hardly seem appropriate. Of course, this brings us back to another potential problem with The 20/20 Experience
, that it is an album all about—wait for it—love.
Real fucking original, right?
But let’s forget about originality for a moment. It’s pretty obvious that The 20/20 Experience
is an album that is primarily concerned with love. Love is, after all, what pop songs primarily concern themselves with. Pop songs are all about calling me maybe
, and me and my boof
, and overwhelming hair flips
. We expect pop songs to be about love and all of its related sensations. In this respect, The 20/20 Experience
is not an original album.
But there is something about Timberlake’s songs, this time, that gives them a particular edge. If we take two steps back from The 20/20 Experience
, we can almost make out a kind-of-sort-of narrative running through it. The album opens with a thematic prelude and call to action in “Pusher Love Girl” and “Suit & Tie.” “Don’t Hold the Wall” tells a story of old affairs ending as new loves begin (“I think I heard what you said/He’s not what you thought and your fed up…Well, I’m the best ever.”). “Strawberry Bubble Gum” is a celebration of new love, of flirtation and seduction. “Tunnel Vision,” explores feelings of vertigo-inducing paranoia and obsession that can sometimes accompany new love (“A crowded room, anywhere, a million people around, all I see is you there, everything just disappears”). “Spaceship Coupe,” and “That Girl” are straight love songs. Who knows what the fuck “Let the Groove Get In” is doing, and then “Mirrors” and “Blue Ocean Floor,” are both simultaneously meditative and ecstatic, the first a reflection on a love lost and regained, the second a prayer to the depth of the singer’s love. While the narrative isn’t particularly compelling, in it, to borrow a phrase from Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones,” we see “the arc of a love affair.” Of course, while most of Simon’s songs landed at the end of their love affair’s arcs, symbolically coding post-divorce loneliness with the whistles of trains in the distance, Timberlake’s arc is a straight line, constantly, optimistically accelerating upward. In effect, Timberlake is
telling a story here, and that story is all about euphoria.
Nowhere on the album does the story’s trajectory become more apparent than in the closing moments of “Mirrors,” which provide the song’s emotional core while also illuminating the emotional content for the rest of The 20/20 Experience
. As the body of the song resolves into an outro, an oddly distorted chant, vaguely resembling something out of “I Am the Walrus,” (and, perhaps, not coincidently, also mirroring the rhythm that bridges the two sections of “Strawberry Bubblegum”) begins from beneath the song’s dense arrangement. As the track quiets down, we can begin to make out what it is, exactly, that is being chanted: “You are-You are the love of my life.” As the chant continues, Timberlake sings over it, “Baby, you’re the inspiration for this precious song/And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on.” At first, this doesn’t seem peculiar. Pop artists are always singing about love and junk. But through the repetition of this chant, and Timberlake’s fragile delivery of the subsequent lyrics, something begins to sound a bit off—the lyric reads as too
real. And to be honest, the lyrics are all of those things
But why are these lyrics not quite right? Let’s unpack this response: the only place we hear similar sentiments in pop music is in the carefully designed and test-marketed adult-contemporary market where such words never quite ring true. Often, when we hear such open, direct proclamations in song, they feel dishonest and calculated. Alternatively, through pop music aimed at younger markets, we are also accustomed to pop songs that obscure their emotional cores with references to phone calls, dancing, and kissing. In these songs, love becomes consumed by an uncomfortable form of synecdoche; only, through the act of representation, the pieces destroy the whole—love is trivialized, is destroyed and is actually replaced by phone calls, dancing, and kissing. Perhaps the distinction between these two approaches is one of maturity: on the one hand, we have the aggressively adult and somberly direct proclamations of idealized love, and on the other we have the trivialized, junior high interpretation of things
conflated with feelings. What makes Timberlake’s utterances on “Mirrors” so stunning is that they land squarely between these two norms—these lyrics are straightforward and even a little bit cheesy, but they don’t make us cringe; the lines feel genuine, as if Timberlake is breaking the last taboo of pop stardom by revealing something true and honest about himself. In essence, in this moment, Timberlake is partially traversing the threshold between pop star and human, reminding us that he, too, can be a little bit vulnerable.
Ultimately, this moment in “Mirrors” resonates forward through album closer “Blue Ocean Floor,” then backwards through the rest of The 20/20 Experience
. Essentially, the outro of mirrors, the album’s climactic moment, unlocks the rest of the album and reveals just how personal The 20/20 Experience
is—this is not an album of generic pop songs about love. This is an album made as a statement of passion, as a document of love’s euphoria by an iconic pop star for the love of his life. Once we come to recognize these stakes, The 20/20 Experience
begins to feel utterly vital. Paradoxically, by avoiding the trap of making generic love songs to sell to an audience hungry for love songs and, instead, making an album that is a statement of his own, very specific
, love, Timberlake’s album transcends pop to become a universally joyous and soulful collection of songs that is as easily relatable as it is compulsively listenable.
Despite The 20/20 Experience
’s vitality and enthusiasm, I’d be remiss not to point out its few flaws. No matter how hard I try, I can never quite get past how out of place “Let the Groove Get In” feels in the context of the album. The song is fine, a Latin riff on the album’s structural obsession with grooves and repetition (which, come to think of it, plays nicely to the album’s nods to domestic bliss—you know, hitting the right groove and riding it out), but the Latin vibe of the song’s first half feels a bit disingenuous, as if it exists as a ploy to move a few extra units.
Additionally, I suspect some might take issue with the album’s narrow treatment of love. Sure, Timberlake hints at darkness through moments in “Pusher Love Girl,” and “Tunnel Vision,” but the overarching theme, here, is euphoria. Timberlake isn’t interested in the work that goes into building a lasting relationship. This album’s version of love is intensely ecstatic, naïve, and purely romantic (and, as with most pop songs, at times it all feels a bit co-dependent). While such an easy approach might read as a bit immature, it is also a large part of the album’s charm. The 20/20 Experience
exists, not as a document about the truth
of love and relationships, but about the extreme responses we feel to love. With this as the album’s goal, it’s difficult to read the album as anything but an impressive success.
But those issues are easy to forgive. In fact, the thing that I find most striking about The 20/20 Experience
is that, despite how unapproachable it seems at first, thanks to those long songs, I’ve come to prefer it to FutureSex/LoveSounds
. The new album’s long, shifting songs seem, at times, modeled after its predecessor’s “Love Stoned/I Think She Knows.” As breathtaking as that older song is, Timberlake’s new approach to the long song is now both more refined and bolder. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two albums, though, is that on The 20/20 Experience
, Timberlake has something to say. This might seem like an unnecessary distinction to make with pop music, but the songwriting and performances are so captivating on The 20/20 Experience
because of the raw enthusiasm and passion Timberlake has for his subject matter. While nothing on the new album feels as immediately innovative or game changing as “SexyBack” or “My Love,” the album feels more cohesive and necessary as a whole. Looking back, FutureSex/LoveSounds
feels like an album that, at times, was trying too hard to have something to say, to be important, and ended up coming off as a bit disingenuous. The most infamous example of this is “Losing My Way” (you know, “My name is Bob/I work at my job”), FutureSex
’s big “message song.” On that song, Timberlake’s attempt to “say something” comes off as embarrassing and forced. And perhaps this is why the six years fans had to wait between albums was worth it: on The 20/20 Experience
, Timberlake genuinely has something to say about the bigness, necessity, and urgency of love, and he feels that message so deeply that he doesn’t have to preach, lecture, or talk down to his audience—he just had to make a collection of songs that embody the euphoric bliss of romantic love at its rawest and purest.
To a point, I wonder how successful this album would have been were Timberlake not so visible to the public eye. In listening to The 20/20 Experience
, it’s hard not to imagine Timberlake singing these songs to and about Jessica Biel, and I wonder if, without the knowledge of the couple’s relationship, if these songs might not sound a bit tame or easy. Still, Timberlake and Biel’s relationship is a part of this album’s context, and the couple’s celebrity makes Timberlake’s pure, honest expression of love something of a risk. Surely, Timberlake had little to lose by making this statement, but by blurring the line between personal emotion and his iconic pop star sensibilities, Timberlake has made an important work of art that celebrates the brilliant highs and quiet moments of bliss and entanglement that can result from a big and generous love, while at the same time challenging the bigness of pop stardom by celebrating the personal in a way that feels surprising and new.