Nearly seven years later, the new stuff feels more than seven years old. So where did all that vision go? Did J.T. lose it in Hollywood?
When pop singers migrate to the silver screen, bad things can happen. Take David Bowie, who just released his first album since 2003. In the Reagan years, his film appearances outnumbered his albums — and his relevance slipped through his fingers. As Madonna snapped up starring roles in the ’90s, her songs stopped defining the era. Prince tried to re-create the conjoined album-n-movie triumph of “Purple Rain” two more times, then either wised up or gave up. Now, when we see Andre 3000 wasting his precious time on this earth in some brainless action flick, our hearts clench.
But Timberlake is an adequate actor — he’s appeared in “The Social Network, “Friends With Benefits” and eight other movies since his last album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds” — and hey, he’s just being a good capitalist.
Sleek pop music is merely one marketing platform for his brand. (A term that will always feel gross when applied to human beings.) He’s 32 years old with an athletic falsetto, a good sense of comic timing and an unflagging desire to charm the universe. But “give the people what they want” is only sustainable when you remember to fold some innovation into the song and dance.
Nothing on “The 20/20 Experience” pushes ahead. It’s meticulously, perhaps obsessively produced dance floor R&B that dazzles at first, then quickly feels useless, like an Eiffel Tower made of toothpicks.
All of the album’s disappointments live in “Suit and Tie,” a lead single that smooshes space-age timbres into the shape of a vintage Marvin Gaye tune. The horn section is totally synthetic, but the inert cameo verse from Jay-Z is all too real.
Timberlake doesn’t have much to say, either, excessively multi-tracking his lover-boy babble, hoping you’ll pay attention to his acrobatic harmonies instead of the feckless come-ons leaping from his lips.
And they go on and on and on. Most of these tunes hover around the seven-minute mark, sending a phony and ridiculous signal that Yes, This Is Art. How convenient that each song takes a breather about halfway through, making it easily halved for play on the radio and YouTube.
So what happened? Maybe our hero is hiding in the back seat of “Spaceship Coupe,” a juicy slow jam that includes an invitation to “make love on the moon”? Nope. Timberlake’s lyrical ambition is captured in the first couplet: “Everybody’s looking for the flyest thing to say / But I just wanna fly, fly away with you.”