By this point, complaining about how long Justin Timberlake’s songs are is probably beside the point. It was hardly a surprising revelation that there would be a second installment of March’s The 20/20 Experience—an album that, with its roster of marathon-distance jams, didn’t exactly want for extension. When Michael Jackson was given MTV’s Video Vanguard Award back in 1988, he spoke for a minute or two; Jimmy Fallon’s distended introductory speech on Timberlake’s behalf at last month’s Video Music Awards lasted at least twice as long. As for Timberlake’s performance itself, well, rumor has it that he’s still indulging himself at Barclays Center for the 34th straight day with yet one more chorus of “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”
So pointing out that there’s only one single song on The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 that runs less than five minutes long is like observing that water is wet, that the sky is blue, and that twerking has brought sexy back. The title of the entire project should’ve clued everyone into Timberlake’s intention to reward his own long-range vision. Not on board? Grab a pair of Coke bottles, Poindexter. Timberlake actively courts the more impatient members of his audience from the very first song, projecting onto them the mantra “Give Me What I Don’t Know (I Want),” assuring them that their excitement isn’t misplaced, even if their wandering ears seem destined to betray them. As a call to arms, it’s actually about as approachable as anything on the album, with softball beatboxing underneath unthreatening R&B harmonies, with Timberlake promising, “Baby, I act like a gentleman that your mother would love, come get to know me.”
That claim, like the song’s comparative brevity, is a red herring, because much of what follows is notably darker in tone than the songs on The 20/20 Experience; it’s the fugue to the first volume’s prelude. Even the title of the breezy lead single, “Take Back the Night,” had feminists and literalists sniffing out false flags (“Does Justin Timberlake endorse date rape?”) well before the song regrettably popped up in a Bud Light Premium spot in heavy rotation on YouTube (“When you’re up for anything…”). The Rod Temperton flourishes of the undeservedly underperforming single aside, it’s become apparent that JT is no longer content to simply harness MJ’s musical mannerisms. He’s also started to interpolate Jacko’s paranoiac compulsions. “True Blood” recasts sex as a blame-the-victim horror movie in which the red-eyed object of Timberlake’s desire calls up “the demon in me…and the bones in my body start to quake.” The brisk groove spins like a demented top, breaking down from what’s already been broken down, taunting Timberlake into a whirlpool of horn-dog dementia. The climactic sample of Vincent Price’s “Thriller” cackle is the final nail in the
From devilish possession to pugilism, the blunt, unpleasant “TKO” defines the volleys of courtship as the exchange of blows in a brutally violent bout, but it’s all cool because “the rematch sex is amazing” (that metaphor alone assures the girl in question wins this round on points). Elsewhere, love is alcoholism (the honky-tonking “Drink You Away”), burlesque (the start-n’-stop “Cabaret,” a hearty callback to producer Timbaland’s early days), neurological disorders (“Amnesia,” a surprisingly elegant R&B waltz). But Timberlake truly hits his captivating rock bottom in “Murder,” which swaps Colonel Mustard’s candlestick for Miss Scarlet’s snatch among his tool chest of homicidal instruments, and throws in whiffs of necrophilia for good measure: “Girl, your body is gonna end up under the ground, under the ground/I’ll be down and throw it at that level.” And yet, the track doesn’t get truly lethal until Jay-Z arrives, observing: “Yoko Ono, she got that Yoko Ono, you know that shit that made John Lennon go solo/Know that shit got to be lethal if that pussy broke up the Beatles/Chocha ruined pop culture.” Truly the words of a man whose artistry was long ago surpassed by his better half.
When you have something you want to share with the world, you do so quickly and directly. When you have something you want to hide from the world, you dodge and meander. Ultimately, 2 of 2 doesn’t so much eclipse its predecessor as it settles into the format more believably. Its subject matter goes further into the disquieting root of what it means to be obsessed with a celebrity (Jackson) who was himself already intensely obsessed with his own persona. Throughout, Timberlake acts as though he’s directing his gaze upon various vampire, corpse, and slasher women, but they’re all McGuffins for his own insatiable drive toward brand-name status. In that sense, this volume’s shady undertones are a better match for Timberlake’s inability to self-edit than the first half’s chipper gloss. Can’t wait for the confessional follow-up EP.
Label: RCA Release Date: October 1, 2013 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon