Monthly Archives: March 2013
Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Justin Timberlake is in the interesting position of being predominately referred to and thought of as a musician, even though he’s spent about the same amount of time as an actor. Think of it this way: *NSYNC released three albums and, all told, spent roughly five years on the world stage, then Timberlake released only two more albums of his own with a four-year gap separating them. But every moment in between, after and before those releases (if we’re counting his stint on The New Mickey Mouse Club), he’s spent starring in film and television, becoming a reliably crowd-pleasing host on Saturday Night Live and co-founding a clothing line. With so much else going on, in theory, it would be easy for JT to take his fan base’s goodwill for granted, going in for a cash grab for his inevitable “return to music,” since he could fall back on the rest of his ventures. But, remember, in the public’s eyes, he’s a singer first, so whatever eventually followed FutureSex/LoveSounds had to be good, had to be an “event album,” lest he damage his reputation. To that end, seven years later, he mostly succeeds with The 20/20 Experience, an opulent, blockbuster R&B record whose reach sometimes exceeds its grasp.
Collaborating with Timbaland again implies 20/20 will rehash FutureSex‘s twitchy, electro-disco, when actually, with the assistance of co-producer J-Roc and songwriter James Fauntleroy, this album is warmer and more diverse than its often chilly and calculated predecessor. There’s a loose feel here, where pop song conventions are eschewed in favor of progressive song structures and extended codas reminiscent of early and mid ’70s R&B. (Of the 10 songs here, all but two are over six minutes, and many are considerably longer.) It’s refreshing to see such a prominent pop musician challenge his audience and play with the format like this, and, at times, it pays off. The creepy-crawly nightclub tale “Don’t Hold The Wall,” the is-it-a-stalker-anthem “Tunnel Vision,” and the silky sex jam “Strawberry Bubblegum” generally benefit from the space they’re afforded, morphing into variations of their main themes as they close out. Elsewhere, Timberlake and co. stretch themselves with the nearly beatless closer “Blue Ocean Floor” and the “Let The Groove Get In,” which comes off like a Latin-flavored take on Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” And the two relatively shorter songs, “Suit & Tie” and the Southern groove “That Girl,” showcase Timberlake’s effortless charm and vocal ability, even if they aren’t as immediate as some of his past singles.
The major issue throughout The 20/20 Experience, though, is that it isn’t as inventive as it thinks it is, and many of these tracks don’t have enough ideas to justify their runtime. The wannabe psych-soul number “Spaceship Coupe” wears out its welcome long before it crosses the finish line; “Pusher Love Girl” begins superbly but pushes its love-as-drug metaphor far past its breaking point, while “Mirrors,” too, starts off as an exquisite pop gem before dragging on and on past the eight-minute mark. And even a few of the better tracks mentioned above, like “Let The Groove Get In,” would do well with some tightening up. Lyrics also continue to be a struggling point for Timberlake, too, mostly because he can’t quite sell himself as a ladykiller on record (which, for being an attractive Renaissance man, still seems odd). Sure, he doesn’t push the sex machine act as hard as he did in the past, but when he offers that “you can be my strawberry bubblegum/I can be your blueberry lollipop” on “Strawberry Bubblegum,” it’s unintentionally silly. And elsewhere, his attempts at sly pickup lines (“Everyone’s looking for the flyest thing to say/I just want to fly with you”) and mentions of sex on the Moon and a “space lover cocoon” only come off as the ramblings of Prince and André 3000’s clumsy younger brother. Timberlake obviously wanted to make a statement with his comeback, and it’s easy to see why he indulged in the more-is-more approach, but for an album called The 20/20 Experience, it simply isn’t all that visionary or compelling, even if its best moments rank among the best and most beautiful pop music of the year. At the same time, this record’s also evidence that he’s still a major force on the pop scene, and when Timberlake and his collaborators become better editors, they may be able to finally craft something as emotionally profound and sonically adventurous as their inspirations.
How To Destroy Angels – Welcome Oblivion
No matter what he does, Trent Reznor will never quite be able to escape the specter of Nine Inch Nails, his massively influential ’90s band. This isn’t to say that he necessarily wants to step out of that band’s shadow, but as many Academy Award-winning scores and Call Of Duty: Black Ops II songs he writes, reviewers like me will always come back to NIN simply because everything he’s done feels like an extension of that group. (See Thom Yorke’s solo career and my Atoms For Peace review for another example.) This isn’t meant as an insult, either. The Social Network and Girl With A Dragon Tattoo scores cultivated their own identities out of Reznor and longtime producer Atticus Ross’ signature sounds—digital dehumanization in the former, anxiety and hopelessness in the latter. Naturally, these scores leaned toward the more atmospheric and ambient sides of Reznor’s catalogue and his production met the challenge, crafting evocative soundscapes for the characters (and audiences) to wallow in. It was only a matter if time before he attempted to bridge this sort of mood music and his confrontational, song-based work.
Enter Welcome Oblivion, the first full-length record from Reznor’s sometime side project, How To Destroy Angels. Consisting of Reznor, Ross, Reznor’s wife Mariqueen Maandig, and artist Rob Sheridan, the group sketched out their ideas on a few EPs over the last few years, and Welcome Oblivion is their attempt to bring it all together—and the result is promising but ultimately half-baked. The issue isn’t so much the approach (elliptical, unsettling electronic dissonance meets sometimes warm, sometimes angsty female vocals) but the compositions themselves. Every track here has a few good ideas, yet these ideas are often run into the ground, not strong enough to justify the occasionally extended tracks they are shoved into. And with Reznor and Ross’ typically exacting production, there’s no feeling of spontaneity to help counteract the monotony when things get limp. Witness how the frustrated “Too late, all gone” begins to build up tension but it feels passionless, simply fizzling out instead of provoking the listener like it should. Elsewhere though, Welcome Oblivion begins to meet its potential. The sullen “Keep it together” conjures some of the creeping, crawling vibes of Reznor’s past work, while “Recursive self-improvement” manages to remains stressful and compelling through the course of its run. And on the pretty “Ice age,” Maandig (who really ends up being the album’s saving grace with her gorgeous, humane voice) lilts above a skipping acoustic riff, providing some needed contrast from the rest of the record. Again, these moments are the exceptions, though it has to be said, even at its most disposable, Welcome Oblivion doesn’t offend. But since Reznor has so much experience toying with these sounds, once the group tightens up the songwriting, there’s no reason they couldn’t produce something truly distinctive. For now though, it ain’t great, but it’s enough.
David Bowie – The Next Day
The critical trope regarding David Bowie is that he’s a shape-shifter, anticipating and pioneering musical trends throughout his career, with few concessions made to what he’s done before. Whether he be in the guise of folkie-hippie, androgynous glam-rocker, soulful crooner or avant-garde mad scientist, he’s always had an edge over a lot of his contemporaries in knowing just what styles to mine and experiment with, helping to his popular and critical clout for the early, most prolific part of his career. But in the 10 years since Bowie’s last record, 2003’s Reality, a lot’s happened, not just in the world but to the music industry. Since then, the Internet’s become a major force in music distribution, and with the advent of instantly self-released albums, file-sharing and rapid-fire blogging, it can be difficult to know exactly which buzzes to pay attention to and what’s here to stay, even if you have your finger on the pulse. To this end and to his credit, Bowie doesn’t try too hard to engage with the present on The Next Day; in fact, the album often sounds utterly divorced from modern trends. As the cover, a jarring modification of Heroes‘ artwork, indicates, he’s looking to his own past for inspiration in hopes of finding something fresh to work with. It sounds like a tall order, but the degree to which it succeeds is what makes The Next Day Bowie’s best album in about 30 years.
Tony Visconti’s updated production and a few stylistic quirks aside, there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been released during Bowie’s ’70s heyday (and not just because all the German landmarks he name-checks on the lovely, yearning “Where Are We Now?” recall his Berlin era). The record is rife with the sort of theatrical pop, sweeping balladry and driving dance-rock—the title track feels like a streamlined take on Heroes‘ wicked “Beauty And The Beast”—that often characterizes his work. Yet, as retrogressive as this album can be, this isn’t “music legend with his edges sanded off” the way so many late-period, comeback records are. There’s familiarity here, but his approach sounds anything but dated. If anything, Bowie’s sensibility sounds right at home in the early 2010s, perhaps because his penchant for dramatic, over-the-top productions fits with the current crop of artists inspired by him in the first place. Plus, of course, it helps that he’s written a fine, eclectic and surprisingly consistent set of songs. The breakbeat drums and ripping riffs that power “If You Can See Me” give it a jumping, nervous kick; the neo-psychedelic “I’d Rather Be High,” “How Does The Grass Grow?” and the decidedly melancholic “Dancing Out In Space” are delightfully off-kilter pop; the soaring, gospel-tinged “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” imagines a cross between the singer/songwriter-isms of Hunky Dory and the soulful Thin White Duke, while the drone dirge closer “Heat” references his challenging, minimalist work. Sure, these aren’t classics on the level of “Moonage Daydream,” “Heroes,” or “Life On Mars?” here, and a few of the tracks don’t live up to the others—namely “Boss Of Me” and the tepid “Valentine’s Day”—but even these are solidly constructed and never detract from the record’s flow. The Next Day is no groundbreaker, but it’s an often thrilling collection of rock songs and the most vital David Bowie has sounded in years.