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.”
He’s talking the same old talk, only this time, in outer space — which sounds like a movie pitch.
David Bowie knows all about the spoils and consequences of life as a spaceman, heartthrob, Hollywood slummer and era-encapsulating superstar. The 66-year-old rock icon’s new album, “The Next Day,” makes you wonder if a mojo lost in Hollywood can ever be regained.
In the ’80s, he played a vampire cellist, Pontius Pilate and sometimes himself, all while intermittently releasing albums that were occasionally catchy, sometimes impressive, but ultimately rather hollow — not unlike the album that Timberlake just dropped.
But now Bowie has been away from music for nearly decade, spending much of it out of the public eye, too. He reportedly spent two years secretly toiling over “The Next Day” with Tony Visconti, a producer he’s worked with frequently since they collaborated on Bowie's 1969 breakout hit “Space Oddity.”
These songs feel more ’89 than ’69, though, populated with drums and guitars that sound clean, brittle and drab.
But before you get there, the album’s first red flag is waving on its cover, which features a large, white block superimposed over the cover art from Bowie’s 1977 album, “Heroes.” Herein lies a Warholian comment on celebrity, legacy and self. (Fun fact/lest we forget: In 1996, Bowie played Warhol in the biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat.)
And while reflective veteran albums of this ilk are usually interesting, are they ever good? This one almost is. Its grabbiest song, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” is an indictment of fame and, in Bowie’s case, a plea for immortality. “Their jealousy’s spilling down / But stars must stick together,” he croons in a slightly wilted voice. “We will never be rid of these stars / But I hope they live forever.”
He’s praying for death during the mildly trippy “I’d Rather Be High,” but not his own: “I’d rather be high / I’d rather be flying / I’d rather be dead / Or out of my head / Than training these guns of those men in the sand.”
Singing from a soldier’s perspective, the man can still teleport from vantage to vantage with relative ease. But the boilerplate rock-and-roll sleepwalking in the background doesn’t move us any further into the future Bowie began chasing so ravenously more than four decades ago.
As pop continues its march into the 21st century, “innovator” remains the toughest role of all.