Tag Archives: Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ – Review

9 Feb

The knives are out for Justin Timberlake, and have been for a while. 2015’s inescapable ‘Can’t stop the feeling ‘ was generally treated with scorn by mean spirited critics, despite being statistically the year’s most popular song. And even before a note of ‘Man of the Woods’ was heard, The Outline published a scathing takedown of the album’s concept, based largely on the presumption that Timberlake was ditching Hip Hop and r&b sounds in favour of more traditionally white ones. Such a simplification, and misreading, of the artistic thought process patronises Timberlake, his collaborators and his achievements. Yet such criticism makes headlines and appeals all too easily to a right on readership ready to shoot down easy targets. It’s not Timberlake’s fault that in the years following the mostly well received ’20/20 Experience’ he’s walked in to a world where concepts like white privilege, ‘me too’ and cultural appropriation can straight jacket someone of his standing before he even opens his mouth to sing. To many, Timberlake’s sin is merely existing and thriving.

But Timberlake isn’t interested in joining in a political conversation. ‘Man of the Woods’ is an insular, personal record about family and nature and contentment that shuns politics and the wider world in general. And as much as I’d like to offer this review as a defence of his right to make exactly the kind of art he feels justified (excuse the pun) in making, I’m afraid this is where I have to change tact. You see i actually agree that ‘Man of the Woods’ is a pretty bad album – just not for the presumptuous reasons outlined above.

Of course ‘Man of the Woods’ is as polished as you’d expect from anything involving Pharel Williams and Timbaland but it sounds more amateurish than any project they’ve been involved in before. Who knows the factors at play behind that – perhaps, and this may be a patronising ‘perhaps’ – they ceded more responsibility to Timberlake himself. Or perhaps after years at the forefront of innovation, they have simply lost the magic touch. It happens to the best of us. Regardless, the consensus is in and very few people are happy. Aside from the divisive themes and cliched production choices, it disappoints for more traditional reasons: Melodies that strain rather than glide. Lyrics that scan as pretentious rather than empathetic. Hooks that don’t hook. Busy arrangements that do all the heavy lifting. Songs that feel, and often sound, disjointed and badly fused. Songs have been missing the mark for these reasons since the beginning of time.

‘MOTW’ is thematically cohesive but backtracks on the daring ambition of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, arguably the most inventive pop record of the last decade. The 20 songs on that mammoth album stretched out to encompass many moods, tempos and styles with extended running times that allowed for both playful frolicking and serious reflection. He still tries to cram all that in to ‘Man of the Woods’ but everything feels shrunken in comparison. ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, easily the grooviest song on her, feels restricted just as it’s getting in to the swing of things. Likewise, mid album momentum is crippled by a handful of snoozy half-ballads. Ironically, it is a case of too much and not enough.

Sometimes in pop music, the sharpest hooks can dig out the biggest holes. That’s what happened on Timberlake’s ‘Justified’ where the insane brilliance of the four singles showed up the album tracks in comparison (a lesson he learnt on the hook extravaganzas ‘Future Sex/Love Sound’ and ’20/20 experience’ where there was very little driftwood). ‘Man of the Woods’ in comparison is full of holes, but these ones weren’t carved out by hooks. In fact the album is oddly short of them. First single ‘Filthy’ was forgettable, and best understood as an experimental palette cleanser. But then came ‘Supplies’, the most embarrassingly inept major pop single I can remember this side of the last Katy Perry album. The song’s cringeworthy extended metaphor highlights all of Timberlake’s most notorious shortcomings as a lyricist, and unlike, say, ‘Sexy Back’ or ‘Pusher Love Girl’, he doesn’t use humour or cheekiness to get away with it. The album’s lyrics are often trite, banal, silly, corny and even creepy. His pretentious performances determine the listener’s response, and these lyrics are treated too seriously by Timberlake to be dismissed as careless pop cheese.

You certainly can’t accuse him of burying the lede. Song titles are as ‘duh’ obvious as ‘Flannel Shirt’, ‘Montana’, ‘Livin off the Land’, ‘Breeze on the Pond’ ‘Man of the Woods’ etc but sadly this isn’t a particularly rootsy or raw album. Highlights from past records indicate that Timberlake could benefit from a more natural, instinctual approach; but with one or two exceptions the songs on ‘MOTW’ feel stilted by over-production. Stacked harmonies, glitchy effects, convulsing beats, layered synth-lines – they’ve always been a part of Timberlake’s sound but here they feel like the safe retreat of a heavy hand. The simple, soulful approach of ‘Higher, Higher’, the country tinged ‘Say Something’ and the funky ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ suggest a more natural, less manipulated sound would work well for the more mature pop star.

And despite all its flaws, there is the strong sense that there is a fine album in here desperate to be released. His concept, as badly realised as it is, isn’t necessarily a bad one. A through line between country, funk and r&b certainly exists, with an under appreciated history, and Timberlake has the talent to draw eyes and ears to it. But ‘country with 808s’, as he described it, is too reductive a rendering of that genre melding concept. In the end, despite intentions, ‘MOTW’ is sonically indistinguishable from what he’s put out before. And that’s the disappointment. He’s coasting. Making bold statements and claims but without doing the hard work to back them up. He lacks the style, subtlety and sophistication of his old guise but the back to nature aesthetic is equally unconvincing. The end result is a disappointing mess.



Michael Jackson ‘Xscape’ – Review

20 May

Michael Jackson has just made 2014’s best pop album from beyond the grave. Wonders never cease when it comes to the King of Pop, Rock and Soul. This is, ironically, an album fizzing with life; rubbish title aside, Xscape is a surprisingly considered album from top to bottom, and one that makes an embarrassment of the posthumous albums we’re use to from our deceased pop stars. Of course it poses a lot of interesting questions that will keep fans and cynics debating for a long time; is this the album Michael would actually have made? Would he have wanted this released? Does that actually matter? The fact is Michael Jackson worked very closely with producers, he was a perfectionist but at the same time he handed a lot of responsibility to the people he worked with – I don’t think this is a world away from what a new Michael Jackson would have, or should have sounded like in 2014. It certainly sounds a lot more current and lively than ‘Invincible’ did in 2002.

The powers that be have tried to claw back some kind of credibility and cohesion from 2010’s hit and miss ‘Michael’. By hiring Timbaland to oversee and curate this impressively concise collection of 8 songs they have hit a home run. It’s been years since Jackson worked with a single producer, and although these songs were originally worked on with other names, Timbaland has stamped his distinctive production style all over the album. It works for the same reason Justin Timberlake’s impressive ‘20/20 Experience’ (also a Timbaland joint) worked last year. It is a modern sounding album with retro flourishes. It’s sonically ambitious in its scale and scope yet it’s poppy and full of hooks. You can’t help dreaming about what Jackson might have achieved in life if he had worked with Tim and not Will I Am, or Justin Timberlake instead of Akon.

We don’t know a huge amount about Michael Jackson’s working relationship with his producers, as a lot of that process is clouded with mystique. Jackson’s producers are generous with their praise of his contribution to the creative process, often attributing unexpected production or arrangement ideas to the man himself. Jackson, like many creative geniuses, had a rather limited critical vocabulary, and he was unable or unwilling to articulate what exactly it was that he did in the studio. When asked, he would attribute most things to God and often seemed unable to remember the finer details of who did what and how. It seems It was a game of give and take between him and his producers. He would start with an idea that he would hum and beatbox; often he would arrange entire tracks in this way, starting with the rhythm, bass, then piano, guitar and even string and horns. The producers would then translate this into something real, often over the course of many years and at great expense.

As time wore on there is little doubt that Jackson became disinterested in the recording process and he handed over more and more responsibility to an increasingly unwise rota of producers. His decision making became blurred, his songs were left unfinished and half baked. At the risk of saying anything unpopular Jackson decided it was best to say nothing at all. In his world this meant extreme procrastination – that’s why we’ve ended up with ‘Xscape’, an album that takes some of his half baked, unfinished ideas and attempts to do something meaningful with them.

L.A Reid’s (head of Epic records and this album’s executive producer) logic is that he chose songs Jackson had demoed dozens of times – that’s how, Reid reasons, you know Jackson liked the song. That logic seems flawed to the extreme; after all, if Michael really loved the songs why would he leave them on the cutting room floor in various states of undress? Nonetheless, these 8 songs are all reasonably strong, some of them would be considered single material, let alone album material, in a lesser artist’s hands. Certainly these tracks are better than the ones that featured on 2010’s first posthumous collection ‘Michael’, and the production is more up to date.

Jackson’s primary influence in later life was classic romantic poetry and great works of art. He really wasn’t as engaged in pop culture as some people might assume. This is what influenced the broad stroke optimism and despair that washed over songs like Heal the World and Earth Song in equal measure. Jackson’s heroes were ambitious, doomed and out of sync with the times. So was he. Jackson was increasingly happy to make grand, unusual artistic statements at the expense of dance songs. So epics like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ and ‘Xscape’ which deal with child abuse, alienation and persecution are in that tradition. By Pop’s modern low standards these songs are strange, difficult, even bizarre but Wordsworth dealt with exactly the same topics. Sure, Michael can’t articulate his views in a way that will avoid scorn and ridicule from closed-minded critics, but then Wordsworth couldn’t sing or dance or arrange music. When digesting ‘Xscape’, and pop music in general, you have to remember that lyrics are part of a bigger picture. I chose to look past the shortcomings and admire the ambition and imagination of these offerings.

Still, without doubt Michael Jackson was at his most potent when he sang about supposedly straightforward things like love and loss (preferably to the sound of cowbells, horns and a Disco beat). ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, presented here in three forms, is the breeziest Michael Jackson song recorded since the Thriller Days. ‘Off the Wall’ fans no doubt have Daft Punk to thank for the lovely throwback production. There is no agenda here, no grand ambition or important statement. It’s a love song that expresses unadulterated joy in a simple and enthusiastic way. His voice is stunning and it glides all over the silky strings and just-so beat. It’s a refreshingly modest joy to behold. ‘Chicago’ and ‘Loving You’ are equally relaxed and enjoyable and both feature production that sounds of our time and of his time as well.

I’ve seen some reviews that take issue with Michael’s later material for being too bitter and angry (read just about any review of ‘Xscape and you’ll find these accusations in one form or another). This is offensive. These people are assuming that a pop star in Michael Jackson’s position had no right to express his anger, as if this emotion is reserved for the young, moody and indie. Michael Jackson’s anger was valid and (mostly) well expressed. It never overwhelmed or defined his albums, and it doesn’t here. Rather it serves to highlight just what a perilous and sad situation Michael found himself in as the 20th century moved in to the 21st century. These songs make me feel empathetic and I can relate to his pain. Likewise some people have a problem with a song like ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ because of it’s controvesial content. The song condemns child abuse. Perhaps these people have forgotten that Michael Jackson was acquitted of all Child Molestation charges put against him by a jury of his peers. If anyone has the right to sing about this subject it’s him. Can you imagine Justin Beiber or One Direction addressing a subject like this? Of course you can’t. Pop stars lack bravery but Michael Jackson never did.

The later songs on the album, the ones recorded in the late 90’s, can’t match the 80’s material.That once breezy voice does lose some of it’s charm as it becomes noticeably angrier and more confident – His vocal performance on ‘Xscape’ is full of ticks, whoops and exclamations, that draw attention away from the melody. The title track is the one mis-step on the album, and unsurprisingly it is the most recent composition on here. Rodney Jerkins isn’t a hack, but he’s certainly no match for Michael Jackson’s talent. It reminds you that ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is a fantasy; a fantasy of what a Michael Jackson song may have sounded like in 2014. It’s an old melody glued to a contemporary arrangement and it wouldn’t exist if Michael Jackson were still alive. If Michael Jackson was still alive we would have more songs like ‘Xscape’ and less like ‘Love Never Felt so Good.’ But then that’s what this album is, a fantasy. And that’s what Michael Jackson was, in both his art and his life, a fantasy. ‘Xscape’ is an un-real album from an un-real artist for un-real times. I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle for our own fantasies and projections about the King of Pop. Take from ‘Xscape’ whatever you want but accept it for what it is; another out of sync move from an out-of sync genius, still surprising us from another realm.


Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ – Review

5 Oct

When I heard that Justin Timberlake was releasing ‘The 20/20 Experience Part 2’ I felt a little cheated. I had ‘Part 1’ all figured out, with a clear narrative; it was an ambitious yet concise comeback album that preached the virtues of a stable and sensual relationship. It was a sophisticated, contemporary pop album that earned good will and high praise from all corners. It was rich in High-soul and extended metaphors. It was sharp and well-rounded, not in need of explanation or further elaboration. My initial response to ‘Part 2’ was – this is simply redundant.

There is the initial problem of how to categorise the album. Should we consider it a direct continuation of Part 1? Is it a companion piece? Should we join them together as a double album? Actually none of these approaches seem valid – this is a completely different album to Part 1, much more scatterbrained, instinctive, conflicted and dramatic. In tone and style it’s much closer to Justin’s innovative 2006 record ‘Future Sex / Love Sounds.’ Where Part 1 was romantic, funny and light on its feet, Part 2 is sexual, moody and heavy. On ‘True Blood’ he takes on the role of a lustful Vampire, on ‘Caberet’ he is a sleazy Lothario, on ‘TKO’ he is a scorned lover. Where ‘Part 1’ was purposefully cohesive and content, ‘Part 2’ is purposefully incohesive and discontent. Where Timbaland showed admirable stylistic restraint on Part 1, here he overstuffs many of the tracks with the sounds and ticks that have become a trademark.

Unfortunately, as a result, some of these songs feel bloated when compared to the smooth and slim-line ‘Mirrors’ or ‘Suit and Tie’. It doesn’t help that the already overwrought sonic hooks of ‘True Blood’ and ‘TKO’ are stretched out to the 10 minute mark. All but a couple of these songs have excessive running times. As a single entity the record is far too long but when taken as the second half of a single project it becomes an impossible listen. But despite the obvious flaws these songs exude an energy and personality that it could be argued were missing from songs on ‘Part 1’. After that album he was compared to legends like Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, here the artist he sounds most like is Justin Timberlake.

When JT diverges from the ‘Future Sex / Love Sounds’ path of the first four songs, the album becomes a much less distinctive but far more listenable ‘experience’. Throughout the second half he experiments in genres with impressive success. ‘Take Back the Night’ has a curiously forgettable hook but an absolute first class arrangement that recalls ‘Off the Wall’ in the very best sense. ‘You Got It On’ is a beautiful soul ballad that solidify’s JT’s reputation as 2013’s most endearing romantic. He also successfully experiments with blues rock on ‘Only When I Walk Away’ and Tween pop balladry on ‘Not a Bad Thing’. At times though the songwriting is lacklustre, suggesting some of these songs should have been left on the cutting room floor. Album opener ‘Give Me What I Don’t Know I Want’ is laboured and unconvincing as a come-on. ‘Caberet’ and ‘Drink You Away’ are pure throwaway whilst ‘Murder’ is notable only for containing 2013’s worst Jay Z verse yet – quite a feat when you consider some of the tosh he’s put out this year.

Overall this is undoubtedly a flawed record, and yet it’s still hard not to admire Justin and Timbaland. Taken as a whole The 20/20 Experience may just be the most ambitious and single-minded album to be taken seriously as a commercial entity, And that’s just the point; this shouldn’t be considered as an album – it’s an experience. On the album opener JT asks for ‘something I don’t know I want’. It’s an instruction on how to enjoy the album – six months ago you didn’t know you wanted Part 2 of the ’20/20 Experience’ but you’ll be glad it’s here. It reveals yet more layers and complexities in the music of this century’s most interesting and succesfull Male pop star.


Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ – Review

24 Mar

Justin Timberlake has been busy over the past six and a half years; he’s appeared in thirteen moves, hosted SNL five times, married Jessica Biel and saved Myspace. He’s been busy doing everything other than what he does best – making music. When I asked an 11 year old if she was excited about the  comeback of this one time teen-idol she looked at me blankly; her generation have only ever known Timberlake as an actor, she didn’t even know about his other career. The sheer amount of time between his last album and this one is made even more apparent when you turn on the radio. Timberlake has always flirted with r&b (which is currently in fine health outside the mainstream) but he’s pure pop all the way to the bank, and pop music is in dire straights. There is nothing out there that comes close to matching the sophistication, sleakness or maturity of  ‘Cry Me a River’, ‘My Love’ or ‘Sexyback’. Timberlake’s co-producer and one time hot-young-thing Timbaland has been relegated to the sidelines in a world where your Perrys, Beibers, Gagas and One Directions would rather turn to the cheap, bland and predictable to make hits that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even the classier Beyonce and Rihanna wouldn’t give a single producer/auteur the room to oversee an over album these days, it’s just not a viable option.

It reminds me of the position Michael Jackson was in 25 years years ago, just before the release of his third album, ‘Bad’. Heads rolled when it was announced that Jackson would be teaming up with the already ancient (by pop standards) Quincy Jones, AGAIN, five long years after ‘Thriller’. But as Jackson demonstrated, wise old heads are sometimes worth their weight in gold. He confirmed this a few years later when instead he went with a string of young gun slingers like Teddy Riley and Rodney Jerkins for the follow-up to ‘Bad’ – the far less pleasing ‘Dangerous’.

Like ‘Bad’ the ’20/20 Experience’ is a stylish, groovy, ambitious pop record that feels more cohesive and consistent than his previous records despite lacking runaway classic singles. People longing for another ‘My Love’ will no doubt be disappointed that there is nothing on here in that league but surely the sexy and smart ‘Suit and Tie’ will do (even with the throwaway Jay Z rap)? ‘Mirrors’ may not quite be a match for ‘What Goes Around’ but it’s still the best thing you’re going to hear on commercial radio this decade. There’s precious little else that would make it on to a radio playlist though – in fact all but two of these songs clock in at over eight minutes long, and they use that length to brilliant effect. Opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’ begins with a swell of strings and smoothly melts into a heart-warming blend of philli-soul vocals and classic Timbaland beats. The final two minutes revolve around Timberlake repeating the hook ‘I’m just a j-j-j-junkie for your love’ and his voice sounds like cotton candy. ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ builds quietly and slowly over that time into an impressive climax that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Keane’s ‘Hopes and Fears’ or even Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. In between these songs there is an hour’s worth of key changes, tempo switches, breakdowns, codas, interludes and genre experiments to swoon over. All the while Timberlake never loses sight of his pop goals, even if his voice is occasionally relegated to a bit player in what is often Timbaland’s show (as on the musically innovative ‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ and ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’).

lyrically the album’s a whole lot less sophisticated, but always fun and ambitious. The songs act as extended metaphors in which Timberlake’s eyes become camera lenses, his car becomes a spaceship and (at various points) his lover becomes a mirror, strawberry bublegum and pretty much every drug you can name. Compared to the poetry of Frank Ocean, or even the provocative lyricism of The Weekend or Usher, the lyrics on ’20/20′ sound a bit tame and unexciting but there is still a lot of fun to be had here. It’s a complete bore who doesn’t find enjoyment in ‘Suit and Tie’s sing-along chorus (not quite a match for ‘I’m bringing sexy back’) or ‘Pusher Love Girl’s ludicras comparisons (‘You’re my heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA’).

QuestLove recently said that Timberlake asked him ‘why do we put all of our power in the hands of 18 year olds? I wanted to make a joint that 40 year olds would love too’. He’s achieved this goal, but at the same time he’s made a very contemporary record. Timberlake nods to the present day without indulging in the excess of dubstep inflected pop. The vocal samples on ‘Tunnelvision’ remind me of M.I.A and the beats sound *just right*. The breakdowns on ‘Strawberry Bublegum’ and ‘Let the Groove’ also sound very 2013 without pandering to a pre-teen audience. Meanwhile, period details take you back to neglected times in music, whether it’s Motown and the 1960’s, N-Sync and the 90’s or Timbaland and the 00’s – all these elements gel together to make an album that feels almost like a living, breathing, history of pop music. ’20/20 Experience’ is an album that takes the best bits of yesterday, the best bits of today and will survive long into the future. With a sequel promised for later in the year, it looks like Timberlake’s could be the most assured comeback of recent times.