Sunday, March 24, 2013

What Justin Timberlake Could Learn from Abe Lincoln

Five years ago, Justin Timberlake and Madonna were declaring, "We only got four minutes to save the world" on their Top 5 duet "4 Minutes." The single, excellent though it may have been, hardly rescued planet pop. It was, however, 4:04 of concise simple pleasure.

Those were the days. A half decade later, time is apparently on Timberlake's side, but not in an altogether good way. Despite having the presumably jam-packed daily itinerary of a newlywed (to Jessica Biel) movie/pop star, Timberlake hardly sounds rushed on The 20/20 Experience, his just-released third solo album. He's like the charming dinner-party guest whose stories go on too long, well after everyone at the table has stopped paying undivided attention to what he's saying and have moved on to admiring his impossibly high cheekbones.

Timberlake has thrown out succinctness in favor of grand overstatement. None of the album's 10 tracks clock in at under four minutes, and only three are less than seven. It may have seemed like a risky commercial move (when it comes to pop songs, brevity sells), but whoever said pop music fans have short attention spans will have to rethink that theory. Timberlake's first studio album since 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, 20/20 is on track to sell upwards of 900,000 copies in the United States in the first week after its March 19 release. That's a considerable improvement on the 684,000 that its predecessor moved in its first seven days in circulation.

There's no rule that says pop songs have to be four minutes or under, but in general, they're better that way. Sometimes less really is more. In the Abraham Lincoln documentary that I recently watched, the section devoted to the Gettysburg Address praised it for its brevity, which hardly dulled its impact. On the day that Lincoln delivered it, he was preceded by Edward Everett, who gave a two-hour-long discourse on the Gettysburg battle. Lincoln followed with a 10-sentence speech that took him two minutes to complete.

"I wish I had come as close to the central meaning of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes," Everett told Lincoln afterwards. A century and a half later, along with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, the Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most-loved oratorical moment in American history.

Timberlake and his collaborators (most notably, Timbaland, back in the producer's chair) could learn something about economy from Lincoln. The problem with a 70-minute album full of eight-minute songs is that it never leaves you wanting more. Timberlake sounds fantastic, and Timbaland's beats are hot and sexy, but most of the songs seem to be long just for the hell of it. "Tunnel Vision," for instance, is an excellent state-of-the-art/heart groove, the closest thing on 20/20 to "Cry Me a River," but it goes on for so long that it risks losing your attention. It would make a stunning four-minute single, but at 6:46, it eventually starts wandering too aimlessly without ever arriving anywhere.

Some of the greatest songs in the rock & roll cannon -- Led Zeppelin's eight-minute "Stairway to Heaven" and Queen's six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," to name two -- are marathon listens. But the thing with those classics is that every second feels necessary. The songs continue to develop and evolve over the course of their extended running time. There are some great songs on 20/20 ("Strawberry Bubblegum," "Tunnel Vision," "Let the Groove Get In"), but they're buried in overlong suites that are padded with repeated lyrics and musical motiffs. Most of them feel less like journeys than going round and round in circles. Unsurprisingly, the album's shortest track, the 4:47 "That Girl," is also one of its best.

With much of the rest of 20/20, though, Timberlake seems to be confusing length with artistry. "Strawberry Bubblegum" sounds as good as it must taste, but does any ode to a candy girl, no matter how sweet, really deserve 7:59? A line like "If you'll be my strawberry bubblegum/Then I'll be your blueberry lollipop" only sounds more ridiculous a dozen times later.

There may be joy in repetition, as Prince (the icon to whom 20/20 often feels like a musical homage) once sang, but in the context of one song after another, it becomes a kind of onanistic pleasure. There's a time and place for everything, but even that gets old when you spend all day doing it. An eight-minute pop song stands out when it's surrounded by shorter ones. But too much of a good thing is just the same old song several minutes after it should have ended.

Timberlake has said there may be a second 20/20 volume coming in November. I'll believe that when I hear it. I'm still waiting for George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2. But I wish Timberlake had taken the best of both volumes and released it as a single album of one killer four minutes after another.
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