First Listen – Justin Timberlake, ‘The 20/20 Experience’

The rumours were alarming. Every track on ‘The 20/20 Experience’ was over eight minutes long. Justin Timberlake had made his showbiz-excess, car-in-a-swimming-pool album. It came in a gatefold sleeve with artwork by Roger Dean.

Hey, (nearly) two out of three ain’t bad. ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is long, very long, so long even ‘Suit & Tie’ and ‘Mirrors’ didn’t quite prepare us for its impressive length. It’s the kind of record that can take you two-thirds of the way around the M25, but is it worth that 70-minute crawl? A stream arrived on iTunes last night and here’s how it unfolded.

20/20 Experience

‘Pusher Love Girl’
JT arrives in a flurry of romantic strings, all set for a caper with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and we settle in for a classic love song. “You’re my heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA…” Oh. Timberlake hammers the drug metaphors – “I can’t wait to get you in my veins… Creep into my bloodstream” – but ‘Pusher Love Girl’ is as sleek as his Brit Awards tux, easing over ‘Bennie & The Jets’ thumps like Frank Ocean’s ‘Super Rich Kids’. Really like ‘Super Rich Kids’. A ‘Super Rich Kids’ that’s eight bleedin’ minutes long, mind.

‘Suit & Tie’

We know this one. It’s the jazzy lounge-bar lovers’ groove with a crowbarred-in Jay-Z rap that’s only slightly less perfunctory than his turn on Coldplay’s ‘Lost’. Nice to get a bit of familiarity in early (we’re only about half an hour into the album), and at a mere five-and-a-half minutes long it flashes by like a Napalm Death track.

‘Don’t Hold The Wall’

Bollywood backing vocals, MIA-lite beats from Timbaland and bass as deep as JT’s pockets all add up to seven minutes of softly psychedelic R&B. He’s a bit subdued here – probably taking a quick breather – but the song locks into a burbling slink that’s pleasant enough. No banger though. No bangers at all yet.

‘Strawberry Bubblegum’

Batteries recharged, Timberlake launches into another eight-minute epic with a “Hey pretty lady, this goes out to you…” – an early warning of some truly clunky, drooling seductions to come. Oh Christ, ‘Spaceship Coupe’. I’m jumping the gun. Anyway, ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ emerges from perky disco strings and some scratchy turntablism to frug off into the bossa nova sunset. JT and his belle are “making love like professionals” (ohhhhkayyy) and forming “a recipe for a good time”. Can’t help feeling Keith Lemon’s checked into the studio. When Timberlake promises, “If you’ll be my strawberry bubblegum then I’ll be your blueberry lollipop,” the Benny Hill theme starts up. In your head. Still, not bad.

Justin Timberlake

‘Tunnel Vision’
A radio edit of this one could be a hit. You could call it ‘My Love’. Justin only has eyes for one girl in the room – in fact, “Just like a movie shoot, I’m zooming in on you” – and he suggests, thinking outside the box, they could “ride off into the sun”. Strings rise, Timbaland burps, synths go Tangerine Dream, seven minutes pass…

‘Spaceship Coupe’

And another seven minutes pass, this time in the company of Timberlake in oily smooth loverman mode. You could sum up the slow-jam doo-wop of ‘Spaceship Coupe’ in lyrical pearls. So let’s do it. “Everybody’s looking for the flyest thing to say/But I just wanna fly away with you… I don’t wanna be the one to alienate/You see I’m tryna find the alien in you… We can’t take an aeroplane/Where we’re going is way too high… Hop into my spaceship coupe/There’s only room for two… Make love on the moon… With the top up you’re wrapped up in my space lover cocoon… Baby, can’t you see all the stars?/They shine just for you…” Think it’s time to change the sheets.

‘That Girl’

A nugget of Alabama soul, D’Angelo meets Otis Redding, clipped guitars and Muscle Shoals-y horns – it’s “JT & The Tennessee Kids” and they’re playing it trad. It’s sweet, it’s nothing new. Timbaland manages to throw in a “Take it to the bridge” and we all get misty-eyed about ‘SexyBack’.

‘Let The Groove Get In’

“Are you comfortable, right there right there…” To be honest, Justin, we’re starting to get a bit restless. ‘Let The Groove Get In’ isn’t a bad Latino shakedown, but Beyoncé did it better and fiercer on ‘End Of Time’ – and ‘Ring The Alarm’ for that matter. It only gets going five minutes in with Italo pianos and 70s Heatwave harmonies. Oh alright, we’re cooking now.

Justin Timberlake

Is it a small crumb of comfort or a crushing disappointment that ‘Mirrors’ is the best track on ‘The 20/20 Experience’? It comes on like a lifeline with those awesome soft-rock synths and, um, the ‘Cry Me A River’ melody, and is the one song that’s really going to pool positive opinion. “You just gotta be strong,” JT assures us and, boy, we’ve tried to be. There’s acres of good stuff on the album, but it’s surrounded by further acres of self-indulgent flim-flam that weep for a decent editor. Where are you, decent editors? Why couldn’t you(sniiiiiiip!)

‘Blue Ocean Floor’

The cheese captain’s back on lyrical duties for the closer, cooing, “20,000 leagues away/Catch up to you on the same day/Travel at the speed of light/Thinking the same thought at the same time/Heartbeat’s at a steady pace/I’ll let the rhythm show me the way…” Maybe Celine Dion turned it down. Still – as it is throughout – Timbaland’s production’s great, mixing backwards synths with what sounds like a lightning flick through CD racks, and if ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ was whacked up to 45rpm we might be getting somewhere. But by this point it’s getting rather Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King and as Frodo Timberlake kisses his eleventy-first Elf goodbye, ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is finally over.

So there it is, the fourth best comeback of the year so far. It’s a ride. In traffic. If you’ve not done so already, check it out here.