* * * 1/2
When Justin Timberlake’s sophomore disc debuts at No. 1 on the chart next week, the Beatles era will officially be over. It’s been coming for a while, with the rise of hip-hop and the relegation of most rock to the sidelines in terms of innovation. But Timberlake, who started out as part of a prefab Fab Five during the last gasp of Beatle-esque teeny-bop, means to ring in a new paradigm.
In Timberlake’s new age, the Fab Four are Kraftwerk, those synth-playing German humanoids who laid the groundwork for modern dance music. And instead of Elvis, there’s the Midwestern, biracial multi-instrumentalist currently known as Prince.
Foregrounding those forebears changes the rules. Old ideas like authenticity and straightforward song craft go out the window in favor of the dense collage effect of “abstract” hip-hop and the hallucinatory groove of post-rave-era dance music.
Instead of a white guy “reinterpreting” black traditions, Timberlake and his artistic soul mate -- zeitgeist-ruling producer Timbaland -- stand as equals in creating a sound that’s partly avant-rock and partly New Wave soul.
OK, I’m exaggerating the importance of “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” But it’s a heck of a potential hit machine. No performer in Timberlake’s position -- totally mainstream, movie-star girlfriend, endorsed by teens, moms and McDonald’s -- has released such a confidently experimental disc. (There’s one cautious move -- a Rick Rubin-produced ballad -- but it ends the disc like an afterthought.)
From the introductory space jam to the Plasticine gospel of the anti-crack ballad “Losing My Way,” through the syrupy Three Six Mafia cameo “Chop Me Up” and the guitars-on-Mars ballad “What Goes Around
It’s sometimes hard to know where Timbaland’s vision begins and Timberlake’s ends. The producer manipulates the singer’s voice as if it’s a universal screwdriver, loosening up every arrangement. And that voice, dwelling in falsetto or growing breathy with desire, often overcomes the mix’s mechanistic tendencies.
“FutureSex/LoveSounds” isn’t an easy listen at first. Its crazy layers meld together into a sticky bit of a mess, and the lyrics are mostly standard love stuff. But repeated listening helps the tunes unravel. The new dimension they herald may prove to be a side road or a yellow brick one, but either way, it’s worth a walk.
“Face the Promise” (Capitol)
The definitive heartland rocker’s first album since 1995 opens with an encouraging blast of the bedrock basics -- kick drum and cowbell pushing the beat, chunky guitar chords, background chick wailing, and Seger himself, raspy and vehement, railing against the pressures of life.
It’s a short-lived rush, though. Seger’s world of fundamental, R&B-based; rock ‘n’ roll and lighters-in-the-air ballads was a vital center of pop music when Seger had hit after hit in the 1970s and ‘80s, but now it’s a shrinking niche, and an artist who can’t adapt risks relegation to a classic-rock comfort zone.
That doesn’t mean Seger should gimmick things up with samples or trendy trappings. But a sense that his musical vision hasn’t stalled in 1978 might add some urgency. Some kind of retooling might also help with his larger problem: trying to do the same job with old equipment.
When he reaches the bridge of that first song, “Wreck This Heart,” Seger suddenly sounds labored, as if he can’t get enough air to sustain him through this more demanding stretch. That sense of strain recurs throughout the album, robbing Seger of the forcefulness that let him face down all those demons and adversaries in the past.
Having Kid Rock guest on one song makes him sound better, though it doesn’t raise the quality. The best selections echo his earlier successes, with the Patti Loveless duet “The Answer’s in the Question” striking a refreshingly natural note. The title track is the best, a lean, road-hugging flight for freedom. It’s one of the few times he sounds more determined than disillusioned.
“The Paramour Sessions” (Geffen)
After selling 10 million albums, you’d think Papa Roach singer and lyricist Jacoby Shaddix would have gotten himself some decent psychotherapy by now. But as long as there’s money to be made from target-marketed angst, it’s doubtful he’ll be penning lines about cute puppies anytime soon -- unless those puppies want to kill themselves.
For “The Paramour Sessions” is the same self-pitying swill we’ve heard from this NorCal quartet many times before. The only evolution since Papa Roach’s 2000 breakthrough “Infest” is the continued deemphasizing of the dead rap-rock genre -- Fred Durst, mop-up on aisle 12! -- in favor of a more metalized approach. But it’s still a dull one; you’d be more entertained by running a vacuum cleaner over your face.
The real problem is the lyrics -- tired tales of death, anger and depression to the point of self-parody. That Shaddix doesn’t seem to get the joke just makes it funnier (titles such as “I Devise My Own Demise” and “Roses on My Grave” are really all you need to know).
Not that the kids who’ll buy this care about the words as much as having something noisy to annoy their parents with. On that level, “Paramour” is a smash.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are due in stores Tuesday.