And he’s back again. As much as we love old Timbers, we were less than impressed with the first 20/20 Experience (or however we’re supposed to address it… 10/20 seems appropriate as both title and rating). It was essentially an over-long, bloated comeback, almost Oscar-baiting in its levels of lengthy self-indulgence. So we’re approaching part two with trepidation; not a good sign that they already have that dreadful cover in common, which we stand by deeming a Wachowski steampunk abortion.
It could have been a clever tactic all along: tear down expectations and hit us with something that resembles regular JT, so that we marvel at it in comparison. It seems to work from the off: Timberlake had hinted that the second part of his opus would be a smidgen darker, and Gimme What I Don’t Know is a brilliantly murky start. Of course, the lyrics are still Robin Thicke levels of cringe (“if you’re looking for your animal/ hop in my cage” – sure, pal), but it’s the instantly infectious, high-standard R&B that wouldn’t have been out of place on any of his earlier albums. Hell, we’re so ready to listen to this over and over again that we’re even willing to overlook those ‘Sex Panther’ animal noises in the background.
The next track, True Blood, comes across as saucy and debauched as its TV namesake (and this time we’ve got wolf-howls in the background. Beginning to think he’s having a laugh now). It’s not chart-busting material by any stretch, but it’s certainly spikier than the wet-lettuces from the last instalment. But just as JT begins to win us over, we realise that this track, this mediocre, ultimately forgettable part of the JT canon, has been on for NINE minutes. Nine. Jesus wept. Then he dried his tears and had time to weep some more.
Unfortunately, it’s the dull portent for the next section. Besides baiting the legion of rainbow-waving Liza fundamentalists, there’s very little good Cabaret does in the world. A low-level aspirant B-side at best, it’s easier skipped than endured. Lead single TKO brings the momentum back somewhat, but dragging on for seven minutes makes it less like its title, more like a prolonged dull punch to the head.
Take Back the Night is a small glimmer of hope of vintage JT, but the Jay Z-aided Murder feels like just that. You Got It On is an unsuccessful attempt at capturing puppy love, and you can think of your own pun regarding the cacophony of Amnesia. If there’s one small respite, it’s the Joe Cocker-swagger of Drink You Away, full of organ-blaring, electric guitar pomp and Tennessee soul. It’s a side of JT we haven’t yet seen, and it’s certainly one we could have more of… especially as there’s no sign of another Let the Groove Get In. Christ, that was good.
By the time the album limps to a close with the N*SYNC-worthy Not A Bad Thing (which, in itself, is actually a bad thing), we’ve realised where we’re at with Justin Timberlake: we don’t blame you. Not entirely, anyway. You’ve been away for a while, things have changed, and maybe what once seemed fresh and relevant isn’t so much any more. Even as a whole, the 20/20 Experience just doesn’t work; pushing boundaries doesn’t mean pushing the barriers of acceptable song duration, and embracing R&B/soul doesn’t mean an entire generation of men need to become whimpering, flaccid Romeos with lines that would make Keith Lemon cringe. We said it the last time and we’ll say it again: hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, but our 20/20 experience says spare us the indulgence next time, pet.