Running through all of JT’s songs about love and relationships – specifically Cry Me a River, My Love, What Goes Around, and now Mirrors – is a vein of anxiety. Whether his thoughts are messing with his head, or full of all things matrimonial, these songs are riddled with doubt, error of judgement and desperate questions, either borne out in the open from present agony, or the underlying consequence of insecure fingers that have been singed.
“Why did you leave me, all alone?”
“(So don’t give away) My love”
“I guess I was wrong”
“Cause I don’t want to lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me”
With much of his life played out in front of lenses – from the Mickey Mouse Club to his latest album cover – a particular reason for these relationship anxieties is apparent to all: romantic loss, all the worse for being played out in public. By having relationships with such famous women Timberlake undoubtedly brings this upon himself, but nonetheless, opening his heart comes with such open consequences that the stakes might well seem all the higher. When your heart causes you to see someone’s face everywhere, a world tour can’t help the situation.
Though these songs are not always strictly confessional, first person pronouns are nonetheless one of the foremost features of his song-writing vernacular (there’s 7 in the above examples alone), and the effect is to entrench this anxiety deeply within Justin himself. How much of his relationship woes have been the result of self-deception or even self-destruction is not our business, but anyone can relate to the fact that carrying a buried wound of any sort means that even in the present, even at a moment of greatest stability, the idea of sudden loss can weigh imminent. We may not know what we’ve got until it’s gone, but we can still toss and turn at night about losing it long before it ever is.
“Coming right back here to you once I figured it out / You were right here all along”
What makes the emotional arc of Mirrors so glorious, is that all of these aspects – the anxiety, the loss, the scars, the fixation on the self – are all present, but treated from a position of self-awareness and happiness – not just reliant on another – but a sense of integral contentment instilled by progress through and life with another.
“So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone”
At the moment this self-aware realisation fully registers in the song, a sonic switch-up occurs to compound this personal development. The towering, romance bordering on melodrama conjured by the dominant synth riff, the swelling orchestral backing, and Timbaland’s idiosyncratic looping beat-box textures drop out, a dynamic already teased by the solely drum-led, open-lunged, arms in the air breakdown/chorus/BEST BIT, and the atmosphere and pace changes substantially. In their place we now have twinkling keys, a subtle metronomic beat, almost total calm, and one of the most intimate, richest vocal performances of Timberlake’s career. The self-possessed subtext fades and he gives himself over entirely, whilst never having been more entirely himself. All that’s left is the repeated declarative:
“You are, you are, the love of my life”
Mirrors is the emotional and musical highlight of one of the, if not the most, ambitious pop albums of the young century. 8 minutes 5 seconds long and – unlike the 20/20 project itself – fully justifying of its length, nonetheless perhaps most satisfying of all, is that there’s no time for grand close, only a growing sense of peace as the instrumentation floats into the increasingly minimal. The song ends in an ellipsis free of anxiety, resting in the comfort of ‘to be continued’.
CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE
- Arbiter of Pop 2k13 (arbiterof.wordpress.com)
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