Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Every now and then there comes an album so bad that listening to it makes me feel physically uncomfortable. This is a difficult thing to accomplish, because I usually give unfamiliar music the benefit of the doubt. This music has to be as familiar as it gets, though, and for that reason I can say with confidence that much of this album was poorly conceived.

I really do admire Justin Timberlake as a songwriter, because he has a great ear for catchy hooks and a penchant for experimentation. Both of these elements are present here, but in this case they seem to clash catastrophically. Among the typical falsetto vocal dubs, acoustic rhythm guitar jams, and other hallmarks of JT’s songwriting, there arises one particular ugly beast that seems horribly out of place at times. That beast is the iconic 808 bass, presumably a nod to the album’s southern theme. While it fits well in songs like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Supplies,” you get the impression that he felt compelled to use it in every single song. This has a near-comical effect in songs like “Flannel” and “Man of the Woods,” where the heavy-handed bassline thuds maniacally in what is otherwise a very delicate instrumentation.

Listening to the album again, I realize that there are plenty of good tracks here. In fact, some of this could be considered among JT’s best stuff ever. There were only a few tracks that ruined the entire listening experience for me. This is one of the difficult things about recording a full-length album, and I only imagine that this problem is exacerbated by a major record label trying to squeeze as many singles out of this veritable superstar as they can. So what if they released the album with half as many tracks? This may not make a whole lot of sense from an economic standpoint, since it’s no expense for the record company to include tracks they’ve already recorded—but what if changing the outlook on the entire album changes the reception of the more profitable singles? Can singles sales be affected by other tracks on the album in which they are contained? Of course, I have no answers to these questions, but as I evaluate the album as a whole I do wish it were about half as long.


Clark – Death Peak


In my last post I took a legendary rapper down to size from atop my music theory pedestal, a force of habit of mine that didn’t quite do justice to his legacy as an MC. Something I failed to convey in that post was my belief that rapping is mostly about creating a personal connection with the listener. Historical impact can form a very real part of a rapper’s identity, and that in turn can actually make that rapper more identifiable with an audience. This changes the listening experience in a way that has nothing to do with the music itself. A really good Beatles tribute band could make a perfect musical reproduction of Abbey Road, but the massive legacy of the original record makes listening to it far more meaningful.

In the same vein, Prodigy’s legacy as a rapper makes for an instant connection with a huge audience, no matter what the musical product may be. In his later years he chooses to let the historical side of his identity do the work, as he presently sits back and scoffs at the haters who would call his music bland or lazy. Alas, I caught myself being one of those haters.

I still stand by my original evaluation; I only wanted to nuance that within a larger context. But from that comes another thought I had: the way I see it, there’s no such thing as good or bad music. Not even good or bad examples of any particular kind of music you could classify. These artificial categories are really a matter of individual perspective, and that usually boils down to familiar and unfamiliar music. That’s why country (or hip-hop) music all sounds the same—unless you listen to enough to be familiar with it. And after becoming familiar with the legacy of Prodigy, the Beatles, or any musical icon, the listening experience is similarly enhanced.

Where the 💩 am I going with all of this? I haven’t even started talking about the album in the title. That’s because I’m trying to talk about knowledge here, and epistemological discussions are never short and sweet.

A listener’s knowledge plays a key role in the listening experience of any kind of music, because it adds flavor to the thought process. There’s a certain kind of music that plays into this “thinking” part of the listening experience, and that music usually gets called “cerebral” or “intelligent” music. Clark’s latest album Death Peak, incidentally, could be classified as IDM, or “Intelligent Dance Music.” When I find myself thinking about this album while listening, I do fancy it to be a superior kind of music. The way he pastiches sublime musical landscapes out of the most unlikely of sonic fragments is incredibly satisfying to my logical ear for musical construction. Like I said earlier, though, there is no good or bad music in the grand scheme of things. What, then, is the equalizer for this seemingly great album?

I saw Clark perform live at Concord Music Hall earlier this month. It is a spectacular venue, and I’ve gone to many shows there that I’ve really enjoyed. For some reason, though, I was somewhat less impressed by this show. The music was great, sure, but it really bothered me that no one in the hall was dancing. Remember, this is Intelligent Dance Music, and intelligent as it may be, it seems to fail in this respect. Going even beyond genre, I feel like music in general should move people. After all, music is just vibrations moving through air, and when it gets to you it ought to move through you. Otherwise it’s just hitting you like a blunt object—ouch!

Perhaps everyone was too busy thinking about the music to dance. Does that mean that thinking can be considered a kind of movement in its own way? This is a far-fetched notion, but it reminds me of the philosophy of mind-body dualism. René Descartes, the “I think, therefore I am” guy, was making a case for the mind side of things. He believed that we exist and have meaning in this world because of our conscience, and not because we take up space with our dumb bodies. But bodies carry their own kind of knowledge, and that’s what gets us through the countless mechanical tasks of our everyday lives.

When we listen to music, then, we can either focus on it quietly and generate high thoughts about its sublime musicality (think anything “classical,” be that Western, Hindustani, Arabic, or what have you)—or we can shut up and dance to it (think anything “pop”). That’s why we move to the music that we can “feel,” because its knowledge is more corporeal than cerebral. I guess what I’m saying is that Clark’s music lies more on the cerebral side, but this by no means belittles his music. In fact, sometimes he’s able to conquer both the cerebral and the corporeal (“Butterfly Crawler” is a particular favorite of mine that has a great quirky bounce to it.) That’s the true spirit of IDM (and indeed, all music) if you ask me: an interesting balance of thoughtful and danceable sounds that makes every kind of crowd happy. And at the end of the day, Clark does a pretty decent job at representing this ideal.