Imagine a world without Robin Thicke. It's easy if you try. Ten years ago, his Miami magician features would not have been greasing up the internet like a dirty burger, his flabby falsetto was reserved for peddling forgettable r'n'b schmaltz. Ten years ago, Blurred Lines would have been just another skyrocketing success for Pharrell and his little Southern gem, Justin Timberlake.
But is Justin still the dazzling wonder boy of the zeitgeist? The days of the life-affirming, smooth, almost spreadable sexiness of Like I Love You or the buzzing insanity of Love Stoned/I Think She Knows now seem as distant as the days of his crimes against denim and his broccoli-shaped boy-band barnet. Seven years is a long time in pop: since Justin left we've watched Gaga morph from angular dance oddity to flaming-boob icon; seen David Guetta go from dance festival staple to rat-faced superstar; and, most terrifying of all, witnessed WILL.I.AM transform from anonymous Pea into Bono-like deity. In seven years, a song such as Azealia Banks's 212 has made someone singing about bringing "Sexy Back" seem like the quaintest thing ever, granddad.
So when Justin announced his return to music this year, everyone expected a thrilling modern pop moment, a stone-cold slab of brilliance to herald his reappearance and kick bewilderingly popular sad sacks such as Ed Sheeran back into their bedrooms. Initially, he decided that the best way to do that would be to release a song that had Jay-Z banging on about fashion like he's flipping through a gangster version of the Littlewoods catalogue. The candyfloss emptiness of the underwhelming Suit & Tie felt like a lazy, unfinished demo. Justin vacantly trilling about the ladeez over a standard Timbaland backbeat was not the world-beating comeback anyone expected or wanted, least of all because there was an abundance of more intriguing tracks to choose from.
The laughably grandiose Mirrors followed, a song that at least sounded fully formed, though with all the melody of a rejected Bieber ballad. Its cornball adolescent lyrics and cheesy whoop-along chorus made it quite the hard sell. He debuted the track at this year's terminally boring Brits with the kind of perfunctory, yawnsome performance expected of Bruno Mars; this was not the irrepressible, Kylie- bum-slapping Timbersnake of yore. You could barely imagine him ripping off his jacket let alone ripping off poor old Janet's bra in front of millions.
It would seem that all this movie acting and hanging round with the über-rich has made Justin a very serious boy. The new, mature Mr Timberlake seems to have put away childish things, including his sense of humour. Even his press shots for The 20/20 Experience are excruciating; he looks like a hacked off maître d' rather than a mysterious, smouldering Renaissance man.
Once, there was an irresistible cheekiness that triggered a frisson of excitement, but it seems to have crusted over with time and left a smug residue. Was it the fact that this intensely private star chose to sell his wedding photos to People magazine? Was it the debacle of the wedding video created by his friend that apparently mocked homeless people? His desperate attempt to convince us that Myspace is cool? And what's the deal with his new found love of Bob Dylan? Whatever, it all makes liking Justin that little bit harder, especially as this album is full of eight-minute epics, odes to the world's shiniest human ponytail, Jessica Biel. Yes, this album attempts to make the previously personality free Biel look interesting and he doesn't even mention 7th Heaven.
It's a mean feat, skilfully carried out with the help of one man. Timberlake may have gone slightly awry and gooey -eyed but, thankfully, Timbaland is still right on message.
The 20/20 Experience may be Timbaland's most ambitious work yet.
It's a heady cosmic stew of Funkadelic, The Delfonics, Stevie Wonder and the obligatory hat-tip to the master of sex-funk, Prince, pushed through a modern filter of sampling, looping and distortion. The concentrated mayhem of Let the Groove Get In shows there may be some spark left in those old dancing shoes and the marshmallow-sweet opener, Pusher Love Girl, with its swoonsome strings and robo-funk beat, spirals out into a deserved eight minutes of sugary heaven.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Timberlake urged fans to listen to the album as a whole conception from start to finish, which is admirable in this world of Spotified teens, but with the bulk of The 20/20 Experience made up of seven-minute mini-opuses that at times can slide into a mush of self indulgence, it will be interesting to see how it works live.
Will punters let the lengthy Blue Ocean Floor wash over them or will there be a mass exodus to the bar until its Cry Me a River time? It all depends on Justin's ability to work his charisma on a crowd: that quixotic magic that only the glitziest stars possess, that is developed over time and will be remembered long after Blurred Lines has been relegated to the pop dumper.
yyy Justin Timberlake plays the Phoenix Park on Wed, July 10th