Justin Timberlake album cover(Photo: Tom Munro)
(USA TODAY) Justin Timberlake's first studio album in nearly seven years is a tribute to two of the most important people in his life: Jessica Biel and Timbaland - though not necessarily in that order.
Biel is, of course, Timberlake's lovely wife, and an obvious inspiration for the songs on The 20/20 Experience (* * * out of four). Streaming on iTunes today, out officially March 19, the new collection picks up where 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds left off and, eventually, explores love and sex from the perspective of a more mature chap. Timbaland is the R&B savant with whom Timberlake has teamed on most of his best material since shedding the bubblegum stigma of 'N Sync.
It was Timberlake's own superior dexterity and charm as a performer that enabled him to make that leap. But those who compared him to George Michael early on missed a key point: As a song craftsman, Timberlake is, like so many of his contemporaries, only as good as his collaborators. There are a bunch on Experience, from J-Roc to Jay-Z, but it's surely not for nothing that Timbaland is, on the standard version's 10 tracks, always credited first among the producers and second, to Timberlake, among the writers.
The driving duo's basic approach remains one of touching up old-school textures with modern production values. Funky horns and soulful strings are everywhere - acting as rhythm instruments on the effervescent, gorgeously textured Let the Groove Get In, which recalls Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones' giddier classics - as are Timbaland's distinctly percolating, syncopated grooves. (If some of those grooves grow monotonous, it's no surprise, as most tracks run more than seven minutes.)
Timbaland also provides occasional backing vocals, his basso chants providing a more bluntly carnal foil to Timberlake's blue-eyed tenor, which flutters between creamy crooning and falsetto as he veers from flirtation (Strawberry Bubblegum) to seduction (Don't Hold the Wall) to obsession (the cascading Tunnel Vision).
We all know where the recent groom is heading, of course. On the penultimate and best track, the soaring Mirrors, he sings, "I'm looking right at the other half of me ... You were right here all along." Clearly, the guy has good taste in partners.
>> Download: Mirrors, Let the Groove Get In, Tunnel Vision
Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY