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Justin Timberlake Looks Back but Does Not Reckon

Justin Timberlake Looks Back but Does Not Reckon

In some sense, that bitter, prickly sentiment feels more vulnerable than anything revealed on his latest album.

Excess and grandiosity waft through every Justin Timberlake release; he has never made an album under an hour long. Early in his career, his ambition helped clip the puppet strings of his boy band image and establish him as a serious and legitimate solo artist. His penchant for collaborating with talented, imaginative producers like the Neptunes (who worked on the majority of his 2002 solo debut “Justified”) and Timbaland (who produced most of his 2006 artistic breakthrough “FutureSex/LoveSounds”) gave his music a stylish edge. But since the second volume of his “20/20 Experience,” released in 2013, Timberlake’s once expansive vision has become myopic, offering diminished returns.

“Everything I Thought It Was” is Timberlake’s longest album to date — 18 tracks spread across 77 minutes — and given that, it’s remarkable how little it has to say. Produced with an assortment of collaborators, including Calvin Harris, Cirkut and his trusty pal Timbaland, “Everything” is aggressively knob-happy, swapping out innumerable filters and coating Timberlake’s voice in every imaginable effect. The first two tracks, the morose “Memphis” and the slick “[Expletive] Up the Disco,” play as though they were made by someone who recently learned the decades-old techniques of pitch-shifting and artfully Auto-Tuning vocals, and is very excited about their discovery.

Abandoning the folksy aesthetic of “Man of the Woods,” “Everything” returns to Timberlake’s comfort zone: Gleaming, lightly profane disco jams that imagine dance-floor seduction as a kind of interstellar odyssey. The results are mixed. The fun, vampy “Play” lightly pushes the limits of wedding funk, while the less successful and unfortunately named “Infinity Sex” indulges in some of the album’s most groan-worthy lyrics (“I know the address on your mattress”). Midway through the upbeat party song “My Favorite Drug,” Timberlake breaks into a spoken word, ladies-and-fellas call-and-response that gestures back to his early hit “Señorita.” “I know I did it before,” he intones, inadvertently articulating the album’s thesis statement, “but I’mma do it again.”

Timberlake has been married to the actress Jessica Biel for 11 years, so the breakup songs scattered across the album are exercises in imagination or, as Timberlake hinted in that Zane Lowe interview, memory. He claimed that writing some of these songs allowed him to “look back at the past” and “metabolize and verbalize my perspective on it.” He added, “I don’t think I’ve ever really done that before.”

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