TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Justin Timberlake's new album, "The 20/20 Experience," is his first new album since 2006. It didn't expansive collection, with 10 songs spread over more than 70 minutes. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that the album poses some challenges for Timberlake as a pop star. But it also suggests an intriguing combination of artistic ambition and marketing savvy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSHER LOVE GIRL")
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Hey little mama, you gotta ask me if I want to. Just tell me can I get a light. Roll you up and let it run through my veins.'Cause I can always see the farthest stars when I'm on you. And I don't want ever come down off this cloud of loving you. So now you got me hopped up on it. Pusher love.
KEN TUCKER: The orchestral swirls, the transition to a soul-man groove, the falsetto croon - there you have some of the key elements to Justin Timberlake's album, "The 20/20 Experience." The title implies a certain clarity of vision, even as any given song presents the singer as a starry-eyed romantic, bedazzled by a woman upon whom he cannot heap enough compliments, come-ons, and seductive playfulness. Listen to the way he invites her into a spaceship built for two and puns on the word alienate on "Spaceship Coupe".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACESHIP COUPE")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Hey, yeah. Yeah. Hey, I wrote this song for you. Listen. Everybody's looking for the flyest thing to say. Flyest thing to say. But I just want to fly, fly away with you, you, you, you. I don't want to be the one to alienate, yeah. Baby, make you see I'm trying to find the alien in you, you, if it's cool, cool. We can't take an airplane. Where we're going is way too high.
(Singing) Going where the day sky turns into night. I've got the windows special tinted for the stars that get too bright and I saved you a seat. So let's ride. Hop into the spaceship coupe. There's only room for two, me and you. And with the top down we're cruise around, maybe make love on the moon. Would you like that? Hop into my spaceship coupe.
TUCKER: That's Justin Timberlake being a cartoonish hepcat in what could be a raunchy episode of "The Jetsons." Timberlake has always been a hard worker and an early adapter to the notion of marketing himself as a brand. Perhaps as a side benefit to what has proven his invaluable grooming and training as a Disney Mouseketeer, Timberlake knows that presentation and promotion need not degrade the product. From his own good taste, he knows that product can be transmuted into art and by instinct and ambition, he wants to showcase that art product to reach the maximum audience.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT GIRL")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) You didn't have to run. I knew it was love from a mile away. But I had to catch you, running through my mind all day, baby. And they all say I'm crazy 'cause anybody, even when your father say that I can't be with you, I don't hear a word they say. 'Cause I'm in love with that girl. That girl. Don't be mad at me. 'Cause I'm in love with that girl.
TUCKER: Timberlake has spent the buildup to the release of the "2020 Experience" debuting the music on the Grammys, hosting what was easily the best edition of "Saturday Night Live" thus far this season, and he put in five nights in a row performing on his pal Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night Show." Creating awareness goes a long way for initial sales of what could be a tough sell.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUNNEL VISION")
TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I don't know why, but girl I'm feeling close to you. Maybe it's this ocean view. I'm so emotional and all these stars been dancing on my head. My head, my head. Too long, too long, too long. I wrote a song for you. I want to sing to you and every time I'm close to you the words want to come out but I forget. You're so strong. You're so strong. You're so strong.
(Singing) Didn't I seem like I would get you something? Just because it's true. Mm-hmm. I can't deny it. Mm-hmm. And I won't try it. Mm-hmm. But I think that you know. I look around and everything I see is beautiful because all I see is you. Mm-hmm. And I can't deny it. Mm-hmm. And I stand by it. Mm-hmm. And I won't hide it anymore.
TUCKER: I say this album may be a tough sell because the song lengths - most clock in at seven minutes-plus - don't initially come across as ready pop radio or download hits. Then, too, he's put out a neo-soul album inspired in part, he's said in interviews, by the expansiveness of '60s and '70s rock song formats. This is at a time when the musical landscape is dominated by the rough folk of acts like Mumford and Sons as well as glossier pop and country sounds.
Timberlake isn't just making a kind of comeback; he's trying to bring back a different kind of music. Having labored, heedless of the contemporary marketplace, he then put his business suit on and decided how to sell this material. If it doesn't, his brand takes a hit - but only until his next movie or TV appearance wipes away the smudge of a commercial failure. But if it works, he'll look like the king of pop he's always aspired to be.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Justin Timberlake's new album "The 20/20 Experience." Today is Philip Roth's 80th birthday. Coming up, John Powers reflects on Roth's writing and reviews a new documentary about him that will be shown on PBS next week. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)