This weekend, I found myself safely in the confines of a bountiful Wal-Mart, nestled deep in the bosom of the Susquehanna River Valley. I knew I had to purchase at least one item while I was in the store; that was the entire reason why I went there. Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. On subconscious autopilot, I wandered my way through the men’s underwear section and found myself at the foot of the Electronics/Tech/Videogames/TV section at the back of the store. I went to one of the few CD racks, and sure enough, Mr. Timberlake had a stack of albums prominently displayed at eye-level.
Retail: $11, marked down to $7.
Seven dollars? Seven dollars! Was this some stack of damaged copies? Was this the clean version? Do they even sell physical singles any more?
Seven dollars? Why the hell did I ever purchased music on iTunes?
Seven dollars. I wanted to buy it just because I could. The album turned from a sort of impulse buy/experiment to a birthright. “Oh, right. That’s why I drove here.”
I picked up the Timberlake CD, and let my eyes roam over the rest of the CD rack’s meager offerings. Taylor Swift’s RED. Done.
I haven’t purchased a CD in years. The most recent physical music media I’ve purchased are some limited-edition vinyls a few months back. I have an AUX jack in my car and Spotify on my phone, so I have no real reason to go out of my way to buy/burn CDs or even get a Sirius/XM subscription. Spotify has (thankfully) ended my horrible habit of buying only complete albums on iTunes, which used to be a terrible thing for my wallet.
Why did I buy these CDs? Good question. Even I’m not sure exactly why, but I do know that I don’t regret the purchase. Let me walk you through my thought process.
The reason why I went to Wal-Mart was to buy The 20/20 Experience. I felt that it’s a big-deal kind of album. It’s one of the biggest pop stars of the millennium releasing only his third album over 11 years. At the very least, a listen to 20/20 would keep me current in the pop-culture scene. Without fail, it’s going to seep into all forms of media over the next year. Imagine my red-faced embarrassment if someone would have thrown out a reference to “Spaceship Coupe” in a few months and I was left blubbering like an idiot. It’s worth $7 to stay relevant.
Why else did I set out to buy 20/20? I heard big things about it. Justin Timberlake was quoted in interviews drawing parallels to a Pink Floyd experience; an album of select tracks, each long in duration, concise, yet dense in meaning. He wasn’t that obnoxious in the interviews – I’m paraphrasing – but either way, he was talking about bucking the trend. A pop album where the shortest track is almost five minutes long? The average track length is seven minutes? Ballsy. If anyone could do it without suffering total critical backlash, it would be JT. He could release an album of him belching the entirety of the Bible and it would go triple platinum.
Another reason for purchasing the album? Timberlake rebooted his social networking site with exclusivity to the first single from the album. Goddamn record resurrected Myspace. I’ll tip my hat to that.
So those were my reasons to purchase the record, but why a physical copy over a digital copy? It has “Experience” in the album title. I figured if the album was half the experience it was heralded, I’d be faithful to the message. It might be some sort of misplaced nostalgia for an era I didn’t live through, but part of me misses the idea of artists making records that flow. I half-remember/imagine some world where you’d go home and throw the album on the stereo and just listen, while analyzing the gatefold album art. Reading the liner notes. Dissecting lyrics. I like the idea of people getting wrapped up in the listening experience, instead of buying singles because the song has some ridiculous hook. (See: Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been?” Holy Hell, I love that hook.)
Also, I had no idea until I picked up the album in the store, but $7? Is Wal-Mart subsidizing this or what? How does that work? Is it just on sale this week? What’s it going for at other stores? (The copy of RED that I picked up was $13.88 plus tax. Why wasn’t T-Swift in on the deal?) That’s the shit that keeps me up at night.
Granted, I was near a Wal-Mart, so it’s not like I was horribly inconvenienced by driving to the store. For the sake of my argument, it was only marginally more difficult to go to the store than to use iTunes.
So – for the last time – the album was seven dollars at Wal-Mart, whereas its “Mastered for iTunes” counterpart is fetching $10.99. At the very least, I got a higher-quality version of the album for four dollars. I ripped the CD to my iTunes library, so now I’ve got infinite DRM-free digital copies, and a hard copy to keep warm in my car’s stereo. Win-win…-win-win-win, etc.
Okay, now why RED? My only reason for buying it was to remedy the fact that I’ve been on Vevo all last week, streaming “I Knew You Were Trouble,” because it’s not on Spotify. Pardon the tangent, but I honestly thought she had some exclusive tie-in with Target for rights to the album because it’s called RED and Target’s logo is a big red target, and Target has been pulling power moves like that lately. My mind goes to dark places. (Like when AC/DC released Black Ice and the Iron Man 2 Soundtrack at Wal-Mart exclusively. Something like that.)
But I saw RED in Wal-Mart, so I figured T-Swift’s allegiance to Target fell through at least for the weekend. (If you take only one thing away from this essay, don’t let it be that Taylor Swift has an exclusive deal with Target. That’s a lie I told myself to come to terms with the fact that I can’t blast “I Knew You Were Trouble,” via Spotify while driving around.)
I felt like I was getting ripped off, paying $13.88 for the Taylor Swift album, while other, unnamed mega-super-pop-stars can offer their latest record for $7. But just now I’m checking the iTunes Store and RED is going for $14.99! I get that it’s 16 songs – but shit, Taylor, I’m not made of money.
So, I bought RED because it’s got one track that I find particularly captivating, along with a few other charts-topping singles which don’t have the same spunk in my eyes (ears?) but, regardless… I enjoy exposing myself to music I wouldn’t typically find myself listening to. If I was following my heart of hearts, (my classic-rock-devotee-ramshackle-percussion-and-bass-groove-loving heart) I’d have already posted reviews for Sound City Real to Reel and the new Bowie album, but I’ve been in a transitional period with my tastes lately. I haven’t even given either of those albums a complete listen yet.
My buyer’s high from 20/20 bled into my decision to purchase RED. I thought that JT’s album was a sound purchase, so why not T-Swift’s? I trust her just the same.
Lets talk about the music on these CDs.
The thing is, these two albums are so different from each other its outrageous. Polar opposites. RED is a heartfelt pop effort. I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, Taylor Swift wrote the majority of the songs on the record and it’s a catchy record. Songs like “Red” and “I Almost Do” are more mature than her past offerings, the logical progression from “Love Story” and the rest of Fearless. In the liner notes to the album, Taylor writes about how RED is meant to encapsulate a feeling of love so emotional it has no name, so visceral it’s scary. She writes about the turbulent and beautiful first days of new love that are terrifying and exciting because they are unknown. I find that really endearing. That’s the heart of being a singer/songwriter; she’s putting into music that which can’t be stated.
And RED is just that: a snapshot of young love. You listen to the entirety of the album, and you feel like you just listened in on an hour-long phone call where some young girl told you all about her summer fling. Tracks like “22” and “Stay Stay Stay” keep the mature songs from making the album too serious. Though RED was undoubtedly produced by however-many Nashville record execs, they managed to keep Taylor’s youthful energy at the forefront of the record. But I guess that’s what those guys get paid for.
If someone asked you what the state of pop music was in March 2013, RED would be a very good cross-section of the times, barring one cross-genre song with a hip-hop cameo. RED is formulaic, but that doesn’t hinder its artistic effort, it just doesn’t tread new ground. RED plays by the rules and does well for itself.
Then there’s The 20/20 Experience. I’m not trying to say that Justin Timberlake isn’t as entrenched in pop-money as Taylor Swift; he has even more clout. And that has its benefits. I’m not trying to give it some unwarranted rock-and-roller status, but 20/20 is a real big middle finger to the pop format right now. JT was able to make this album because of who he is. I’m not saying he did it just because he could, but it’s evident he’s one of the few who could pull this off successfully.
Though the entire 20/20 Experience has the same vague vibe, or feel, each song is notably different from the last. A few of the songs on the album, such as “Mirrors,” or “Blue Ocean Floor,” are fairly sparse, whereas other tracks are just dense. Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” is alive and well in the 20/20 Experience. “Tunnel Vision,” the fifth track on the album grows exponentially from start to finish. From a small R&B sample with garbage-can percussion in the opening seconds, the song morphs with each chorus, adding mellow bass, staccato strings, and beatbox percussion over each chorus. Eventually, the song transforms from a sweet message of monogamy to an almost unnerving admission of infatuation. By its fifth minute, the song is a towering mountain of synths and samples that whittles itself back down before its end. It’s really an impressive track.
The only thing that I feel could be a possible fault of the album’s grand scope is its structure. Each song is composed of at least three movements, some connected by nothing more than a measure of rest. Those transitions feel a little cheap at times. I wonder if maybe things could have been layered a little more smoothly to make the songs have a more natural progression. Or perhaps they could have broken some songs into two or three tracks, for example: “Strawberry Bubblegum Pt. 1 and 2.”
But for every transition that feels a little forced, there is another that is absolutely tremendous. Personally, one of my favorites is in the album’s first single, “Suit & Tie,” when Jay-Z takes the mic. The song’s main groove, a bouncy bassline brightened by a glass-bottle backbeat drops. “Get out’cha seat, HOV.” And then shit goes haywire. The song sounds like audible illness. The bass wobbles like a drunkard. The backbeat has slowed down to a snail’s pace. “Time for tuxedos for no reason.” It’s pretty great.
“Spaceship Coupe” is another track that held my attention on Timberlake’s album. Its message is simple: let’s get in my two-seater spaceship, and get romantic in space. The first time I listened to it, I kept thinking that it was teetering on the border of cheez. But, no! The instrumentation saves the track. Since when was sawtooth bass ever sexy? It’s a lot of things, (amazing, namely) but sexy wouldn’t have been high on my list of descriptors for heavy sawtooth bass. However, this track makes it work! I think it’s the broken nature of the bassline that makes it work. It’s got a smooth little pickup, ironed out by a bit of portamento that holds the root notes for just long enough, and then departs for a measure. Repeat ad infinitum, or until a Grammy appears. Rather than mash on the low-end of the synth for five minutes, the bassline’s silence is just as important as its presence. It hangs around for the entire track, but never overstays its welcome.
There’s this thing that happens when I hear a bassline I really like. I reflexively scrunch up my face and exhale slowly. A breathy whistle escapes from time to time. Listen to some Bill Withers if you want to get the general idea of it. Something about a tight, effective bassline makes me a puckered mess, unable to do anything but listen in admiration. It happened to me on “Spaceship Coupe,” and another song on The 20/20 Experience, “That Girl.”
“That Girl” is an excellent song. From the faux-live opening that pits you in some dark, underground club on the edge of some city, a horn pickup and an impossibly sweet guitar hook captivates for the duration of the track. The shortest track on the album, clocking in at just under five minutes, “That Girl” quickly comes to a simmer and goes down smooth. It is also the least “processed” sounding song on the album, or the song which could probably be closest replicated with a live band. While I think that is one of its qualities that makes me like it so much, it is also interesting to note how it feels right at home as track seven out of ten on an album rich with samples and unabashed over-production.
And that over-production is what brings me here: an aspect of the music business has really interested me lately. Not really the music business, but the business of making music. I’m not talking about the music industry as much as I’m talking about how music gets made. I left Wal-Mart, opened The 20/20 Experience, and put it in my car stereo as I idled in the parking lot, leafing through the CD booklet. The liner notes on JT’s album are really fascinating when you think about it. Each of the 10 tracks has its own unique credits, written-by, produced-by, recorded-at, etc… Each song was its own production. As each song on that album is its own experience, each track had its own undertaking. He didn’t record the album in a week, laying down all the necessary tracks and only then head to mastering. It feels as though each track was built piece-by-piece in the studio, not sketched out in a singer-songwriter fashion with an acoustic guitar and a notepad. Each track is obviously intricately produced, but lovingly so. I have no idea how Timberlake will recreate the album live (I’m sure he’ll do it successfully, with his trademark charm and panache, as he does anything) but it really is an experience borne of the studio. It’s a testament to modern music production.
Keep an eye out for the spice at 2:32. “Charm and panache” might honestly be selling him short.
Jay-Z’s rap in “Suit & Tie” has an interesting line: “Nothing exceeds like excess.” I think that notion represents The 20/20 Experience pretty well. 20/20 is definitely best served as a whole album, and when consumed as such, it feels downright decadent. There’s a whole lot of content on that one disc. Each song has dark corners that open up with repeat listens. It is not excess for the sake of itself, but for the sake of living well. Like a musical feast, it leaves you feeling satisfied in ways you never knew you needed. An exercise in decadence, JT’s new album is well worth a listen.
Two CDs well worth my time. Will I start buying CDs exclusively? No. Spotify is very near and dear to my heart. I will buy CDs again for a favorite artist’s new album, or maybe when people start delaying releases to Spotify. But until then, I’m glad there’s choices for the music consumer, modern, oldschool, or otherwise.