The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2
RCA Records; $11.88
The anticipation that surrounded Justin Timberlake’s return to music was intense. It took seven years for him to follow-up the Grammy-winning masterpiece that was “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” and when he did in March with “The 20/20 Experience,” the pop prince helped fill a void in our musical lives, thanks to his slick R&B sound jelled with dance beats.
Now, we may be getting too much of Timberlake.
“The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2” uses the same formula that’s becoming his musical trademark — the trance-inducing grooves and futuristic electronic beats helmed by Timbaland and Timberlake, who co-wrote each song. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel new. Like “FutureSex” and the first “20/20” album, the songs on “2 of 2” are long, but they aren’t as entertaining or as cohesive as his first effort. Some tracks sound like leftovers from past recording sessions, and — dare we say it — actually drag on.
The album starts on the wrong note with “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” and the nine-minute “True Blood,” both up-tempo songs that lack that Timberlake-esque spark and swag. The lead single, the disco number “Take Back the Night,” might be good for mere mortal pop stars, but compared to Timberlake’s own lofty standards, disappoints. A better choice would have been the Drake-assisted “Cabaret,” which is smooth and has an addictive hook.
Not all of “2 of 2” should be dismissed: “You Got It On” is soft slow jam — listen and you’ll feel like you’re on a cloud. And the midtempo “Drink You Away” is the disc’s most adventurous offering. It doesn’t sound like anything else on the album: It’s guitar driven with a strong backbeat, with a raw quality that makes it a bit indescribable — and exhilarating.
The multitalented Timberlake, one of a few who could get away with releasing two albums in a year (we’re still mad at One Direction for trying that that), is releasing dense music when most Top 40 listeners have short attention spans. The album runs 74 minutes, and the average song is six minutes.
That’s not to say Timberlake shouldn’t challenge listeners with his music — he did it magically with the electro-pop flavor of “FutureSex” before dance music made its comeback, and “20/20” did not conform to radio standards either.
But even for those people who can deal with more than 140 characters and three-minute songs — that includes me — “2 of 2” doesn’t challenge enough, and we want and expect more from one of music’s best all-around entertainers, especially when the original “20/20 Experience” still has more so much more to offer.
You Can’t Make Old Friends
Warner Bros.; $11.92
Kenny Rogers enters his 75th year with an album that blends the familiar with the challenging, seeking new hits and pursuing new ideas even as he enters the Country Music Hall of Fame this fall.
His age occasionally shows in the raggedness at the edges of his vocal tone. But Rogers always made the huskiness of his voice work for him, and that holds true through most of these 11 new songs. Impressively, he hits high, forceful notes when required, matching longtime duet partner Dolly Parton on the soaring passages of the wistfully sentimental title tune, which would have fit on any of his solo albums from decades past.
On the progressive side, Rogers tackles the struggles of a Mexican immigrant on the Spanish-tinged ballad “Dreams Of The San Joaquin;” a jaunty Gulf Coast dance tune on “Don’t Leave Me in the Night Time,” featuring accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco; and a complex narrative about fighting darkness in the modern world on “Turn This World Around,” a duet with young singer-songwriter Eric Paslay.
He occasionally reaches too far, as in “’Merica,” certainly the first patriotic tune to reference a spanked child and a drunken uncle. For the most part, though, Rogers proves he can still deliver the romantic ballads and dramatic narratives on which his reputation rests.
Kings of Leon
RCA Records; $9.89
Three years after the Kings of Leon’s last record, the edgy, gravely rock foursome return in top shape with “Mechanical Bull.” The album takes the band’s unique sound — the recognizable longing guitars and Caleb Followill’s growl — and adds a hint of melancholy and a stillness that gives the songs an aura of contentment.
Nervy desire and wildness is still present in their music, most prominently in “Tonight,” with its sexy vibes of earlier hits that hinted at mad tumbling into lust, and in the obsessive strummings of “Wait for Me.” The playful notes of the first single, “Supersoaker,” set the tone, adding a sense of giddiness to the proceedings.
“Don’t Matter” goes full-on rock in the beginning but is gradually imbued with a hint of Billy Joel. “Temple” starts out noisily and morphs into the confident stage presence of a rock star. “Beautiful War” rounds up the sound with a heartfelt ballad that showcases Caleb’s voice. And “Family Tree” sounds like an old man trying to give advice to the young, who think they know better than everyone else.
Despite tackling the familiar themes of drunken nights and tentative love, the songs weave the story of a man who knows the meaning of being lost and who has finally been found. “Mechanical Bull” isn’t the anguished edgy ride you’d expect from Kings of Leon but a fun, stirring experience you don’t want to end.