If nothing else, 2013 may well go down as the year the “event album” reached its apotheosis, with four-quadrant assaults of corporate synergies, saturation marketing, social media info-bombing and customized distribution strategies fast becoming standard operating procedure. Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” for example, came preloaded onto a data-mining Samsung app touted in a three-minute commercial during the NBA Finals. Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and Kanye West’s “Yeezus” were preceded in release by weeks of teasing secrecy and elaborate, well-financed guerrilla marketing. And Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience,” by far the year’s highest-seller, arrived at the crest of a nearly unprecedented deluge of promotional appearances, tour announcements and multi-tentacled brand partnerships with the likes of Target, Bud Light and Clear Channel.
Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” out this week via Interscope, is not an event album. Sure, the title track and its controversial video made huge waves this summer, and the single has reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 for going on eight weeks. But the album itself is a fundamentally old-school affair, a no-frills collection released to the world through all the normal channels. The record contains two singles with undeniable radio appeal, five album tracks that are far superior yet less immediate, and another four songs that no one will remember in a year’s time. And that’s pretty much it. Yet it’s precisely this sunny simplicity that makes “Blurred Lines” such a welcome antidote to this year’s blockbuster album bloat.
Of course, it’s unlikely that this low-key approach was strategic. Prior to his smash singles chart success, Thicke was not an artist who would have seemed capable of supporting an “event.” But after nursing a respectable urban radio audience with the amiable Marvin Gaye-isms of his previous five albums, Thicke has taken a sharp turn here towards the poppier end of the spectrum. Soul-searching is in short supply, grooves are engineered to emphasize floor-quaking beats rather than slinky basslines, and Thicke gives his loverman croon a rest in favor of a libidinous strut.
This stylistic shift has not gone unnoticed, with some accusing the singer of mimicking a certain fellow blue-eyed soulster. It’s not hard to see why, but in this case, Timberlake-lite turns out to be a lot more fun than Timberlake-heavy. Arguably this year’s most opulently produced album, Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” was frequently waterlogged by meandering codas and overly-tinkered arrangements, like a meal so gorgeously garnished and plated that one is hesitant to point out that the steak is overcooked and the sauce under-seasoned. By contrast, “Blurred Lines” can sometimes feel comparably dashed off – particularly on the off-brand “Off the Wall”-pastiches “Ain’t No Hat for That” and “Ooo La La” – yet this is not an album that asks to be admired, it simply asks to be danced to.
While the Pharrell Williams-helmed title track and the hedged-bet Dr. Luke production “Give It 2 U” will get most of the attention, the heart of “Blurred Lines” lies in its deeper cuts. “Get in My Way” embraces the easy effervescence of classic disco without any of the muso noodling or scholarly hectoring that dragged down Daft Punk’s latest, and the Timbaland concoction “Take It Easy on Me” bounces along effortlessly. Album highlight “Feel Good” is an artfully assembled slice of piano-based trance-pop that suits Thicke’s distorted falsetto perfectly, making him seem less a Timberlake also-ran than a male version of Kylie Minogue.
(That’s intended as high praise, by the way.)
And like Minogue, Thick evinces an essential innocuousness that allows him to indulge in risible ribaldry without sullying his overall image. Considering this album’s lyrics, that turns out to be quite fortunate.
Singing frequent paeans to his penis and the daring feats he assures us it can perform, Thicke employs language and metaphors that might make a listener long for the relative wit and sophistication of AC/DC’s “Crabsody in Blue.” A lyric in which our hero promises his paramour “a little Thicke for ya” really doesn’t require the immediate clarification, “a big dick for ya,” yet Thicke fares even worse when the punchline is implicit: The “Blurred Lines” couplet “You wanna hug me / What rhymes with hug me?” seems to invite a whole host of interpretations other than the one Thicke likely intends. (“Slug me?” “Fugly?” “Drug-free?”)
But Thicke is ultimately all talk, and makes few bones about it. On the album’s lone ballad, “4 the Rest of My Life,” Thicke revisits the neo-soul of his earlier LPs, crooning a sweet, Prince-inspired ode to romantic commitment that registers as “Blurred Lines’ ” only moment of outright sincerity. It serves as a reminder that the singer here is not some club-hopping twentysomething, but rather a 36-year-old father, married to his high school sweetheart, who spent his twenties toiling in the songwriter-for-hire salt mines.
In that context, the rest of the record registers as simply a sort of early midlife crisis, with Thicke playing the part of the family-man college buddy who stops by to trade some dirty jokes and sneak a beer before heading home for dinner. And who can blame him? Disco is easy, domesticity is hard.