Bye Bye Bye

Justin Timberlake kisses his pop roots adios

Even though there's an endless appetite for radio-friendly music, many pop-oriented artists eventually become bored with the straightforward pop-music structure. And really, who can blame them? Even though it's one of the hardest things to construct, the pop hit is also the most limiting — the tune the artist will always be asked to perform, to the exclusion of (perhaps) more relevant work.

Take Radiohead, which dominated alt-rock airwaves in the 1990s with tunes like "Creep" and "High and Dry" before making a conscious decision to go for abstract and alien over accessible — a move that, bizarrely, made the U.K. quintet more popular than ever in the States. Even vocalist Thom Yorke's recent solo album, The Eraser (by all accounts a throwaway collection of feathery glitch-tronica), debuted at No. 2 in the Billboard album charts.

Oddly enough, monster boy-band 'N Sync in a sense echoed Radiohead's career trajectory. The squeaky-clean quintet mesmerized the Top 40 glitterati with "Bye Bye Bye" and "Tearin' Up My Heart" before embracing producers such as BT and the Neptunes on 2001's experimental, hip-hop-leaning Celebrity— which sold less than half of the previous year's No Strings Attached but earned the band all-important cred.

This cred certainly helped 'N Sync figurehead Justin Timberlake when he went solo and released 2002's Justified. A slick disc paying homage to Michael Jackson, disco, soul and modern hip-hop, the platter established the 25-year-old as a bona-fide pop star in his own right — even though (and likely because) it sounded like nothing else on the airwaves at the time.

Timberlake attempts to solidify his street rep further on the new FutureSex/ LoveSounds, an obvious attempt to hang with pop's new kings, the hip-hop guys; collaborators include Snoop Dogg, T.I., will.i.am and Three 6 Mafia. But instead of sounding modern, he simply sounds outclassed.

The most frustrating thing, actually, is that Timberlake downplays his status as a pop icon. He's the rare artist capable of creating killer ear candy that's progressive and accessible; on Sounds, he seems reluctant to acknowledge this. Take "SexyBack." It's certainly distinctive and infectious; but with minimalist techno drip-drops, squelching tracks and random Timbaland interjections ("Get your sexy on!"), its appeal is gradual, not immediate. Not helping is the chorus, which camouflages Timberlake's voice with distortion and a slightly menacing tone, a far cry from the warm falsetto that brought him fame.

The bigger problem with "SexyBack," however — the song's lack of hooks and dynamics — plagues much of Sounds. Timberlake's pop-song deconstructions are just boring; most of the tunes don't go anywhere interesting once they've established a rhythmic and lyrical pattern. "Sexy Ladies" utilizes super-'80s synth swerves and a loping funk-bass very reminiscent of Prince, but wastes it on almost-bored vocals. "My Love" boasts a guest spot by T.I., yet features stuttering beats that repeat like a cartoonish (and annoying) eight-bit Nintendo game. And the Three 6 Mafia/Timbaland collab "Chop Me Up" limps along painfully because of its generic, stale-sounding track and shout-outs.

This isn't to say there aren't interesting moments: "LoveStoned" is a string-laden disco-tango driven by panting beat-boxing, while the interlude "Let Me Talk to You" is a hyperactive Basement Jaxx-esque percussive collage. And the sublime kiss-off "What Goes Around..." (an obvious companion to Justified's "Cry Me a River") is probably the finest ballad Timberlake's ever sung, a twisted spiral of vengeance and melancholy driven by billowing strings and melt-away harmonies.

But overall the closest parallel in 2006 to Sounds is Yorke's Eraser, an album also built on a foundation of repetition, half-formed phrases and detailed sonic atmosphere. Unfair or not, Yorke's Eraser works because fragmentation is expected from him and Radiohead. Their entire shtick is T-shirt slogans refigured as poetry and an insistence on deviation from the norm. But while Yorke's solo album succeeds by playing up to his strengths, Sounds finds Timberlake obscuring his sonic gifts behind trendy production and conceits.

In one very interesting way, however, the two albums complement each other like yin and yang: sexuality. Yorke's seduction technique is and always has been his mystery; Eraser's whispered slogans work as come-ons because they're cryptic, enigmas that stir the heart and brain. Existential crisis-ing and intriguing non-sequiturs appeal to the cerebral part of attraction that gets sensitive poets (cf. Paul Rudd's character in Clueless) laid like gangbusters.

Timberlake's album, though, goes straight for the loins; subtlety need not apply. The fabulous title track — a sonic cousin to Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous Girl" and by far the best song on Sounds — is pure sex, thanks to a liquid synth-funk backline that rolls in the hay with writhing rhythms and Timberlake's ear-nibbling pillow talk: "You know what you want, yeah/And that makes you just like me/See everybody says you're hot, baby/But can you make it hot for me?"

Yet Sounds isn't sure whether it wants to be the attentive boyfriend or the leering sketchbot. On the will.i.am-featuring "Damn Girl" — where Timberlake either sings the titular phrase like a glitzy soul man or sputters it, eyes popping out of his head — one can't help but think of those dudes who hit on women at bars with "I am undressing you with my eyes" once-overs. "LoveStoned" features the unintentionally hilarious line, "She looks like her mother/Except she got a little more ass," while tough-guy Timberlake boasts elsewhere, "I got sexy ladies/All over the floor." OK, we get it: Ladies love them some Timberlake.

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