Two very different fanbases squealed sighs of relief this month upon seeing their musical heroes return to action. This week, David Bowie, 66, released his first album in a decade, "The Next Day." Next week, Justin Timberlake, 32, delivers his first album in six years, "The 20/20 Experience" (currently streaming on iTunes ahead of its release next week). I wouldn't dream of comparing the sound and vision of these gents, but (aside from the temporal puzzles in their titles) the two albums share a particular foundational perspective -- that of an iconic artist seeking to make solid new music without hitching rides on any shiny, new bandwagons.
Timberlake's outing is promising, though the full delivery of that promise requires patience and repeated listening. This album's a grower, not a shower.
It is most definitely not a sequel to 2006's "FutureSex/Lovesounds." Like Bowie, Timberlake has reteamed with a trusted producer who helmed his breakthrough moment -- savvy sonic architect Timbaland -- and together they distill the good stuff from their past triumphs. They don't, however, amplify those qualities. Instead, they crystallize them, ever so slowly.
"The 20/20 Experience" is a long album (too long, yes), while laid back and supple. Most songs stretch on and on, and then morph into completely different songs. "Pusher Love Girl" opens the affair on a relaxed, strolling beat, with Timberlake flinging his falsetto far and high (it stops just short of being campy, but barely). After five minutes, the song drifts into an extended jam of vocal samples and a skittering rhythm, wrapping up at the eight-minute mark and leaving the listener bothered and bewildered.
Throughout the album, songs U-turn like this and drive on for miles more. "Don't Hold the Wall" -- the album's coolest track, rich with Timbaland production including moaning tribal wails and rainsticks -- breaks midway through into a foggy tempo dazed by echoing voices and effects. "Mirrors" muddles along as a dreadful Maroon 5 knock-off before devolving into a second half of Oompa Loompa chants and aimless crooning. "Strawberry Bubblegum" uses its switcheroo to its advantage, building the sexual tension during the first half's subtle, blippy beats, then cranking up the Casio bossa nova and upping the allure, as if he's been eyeing the girl smacking the gum and now he's got that taste in his mouth as he dims the lights.
Musically, though, nothing here comes on strong, which is the album's blessing and curse. The sounds are light and densely layered -- there's plenty to discover, and even "Suit & Tie," the breezy comeback single, appreciates over time and may have long legs this summer. But often one gets the sense that Timberlake and Timbaland were so chill in the studio they let things roll on too long. "Spaceship Coupe" is the lowest point, actually collapsing for lack of any structure to hold it up (or, possibly, from embarrassment over the absurd lyrics, a common JT issue). The Memphis samples, horns and vocal styling on "That Girl" apes Al Green a little too winky-winky and never reaches full steam. Sometimes Timberlake gets so deep into his own flow he forgets to swim.
Given the hyped, tuxedoed performance at the Grammys with the big band, I had expected "The 20/20 Experience" to be packed with retro razzle-dazzle. Not so much. MTV has labeled the album "part Frank Sinatra, part Frank Ocean," addressing its mixture of sly classicism and smooth presence. "C'mon, shake it, you know, like you got something to prove," Timberlake sings in "Let the Groove Get In," an assault of African rhythm and chant. But it's clear he feels he's got nothing to prove, like Jay-Z -- who apparently is destined to be JT's shadow throughout 2013, joining him on the tour that reaches Chicago's Soldier Field on July 22. This is a album, with the extra half thrown in for how much better it's likely to sound by the time they get here.