Justin Timberlake's first UK gig in two-and-a-half years has been scheduled in a medium-sized west London disco, adding that crucial layer of exclusivity and occasion to the event. But few of the teenage girls who screamed at him in his days in the boy band 'N Sync are present tonight.
Whereas Robbie Williams bulldozed such a past with end-of-the-pier chutzpah, Timberlake has erased it with the slickness of his electro-gliding moves in his brilliant video for "Rock Your Body", from his solo debut album, Justified (2002). If that release made him out to be no more than a pretty face, fronting the skills of high-priced squads of pop producers, his physical grace and Memphis modesty have subsequently made him friends from The Flaming Lips to Snoop Dogg. Richard Kelly, the director of the cult film Donnie Darko, has cast him in the follow-up, Southland Tales, describing the pop star's character as "the spiritual centre of the film" and pronouncing: "You will see Timberlake do extraordinary work in the rest of his career as an actor." For now, Timberlake is a beautiful, hurt-looking Southern boy of uncertain talent, in anything except his omnisexual appeal; an almost blank slate on which others have helped write a universally hip, megastar career. With the music in danger of becoming an afterthought, he's here tonight to launch his second solo album, FutureSex/ LoveSounds.
When he comes on with "Cry Me a River", girls leap and scream at the sight of him, for once getting close enough to almost touch the object of their desire. Dressed like a lithe, urban Sinatra, complete with fedora, he doesn't outrageously body-pop like one of his musical role models, Michael Jackson. He just glides and sings in a girlishly high register. With a crack band helping replicate the machine-tooled, pizzicato intricacy of the record, it's an impressive entrance. He's hatless and at the piano for "Senorita", and swinging a guitar for "Like I Love You"; pointedly musical, not just a mouthpiece. When the latter song climaxes with him rather primly pogoing through Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the market repositioning into polite punk pop, to jibe with these Green Day- and Strokes-inflected times, couldn't be cruder.
Timberlake's a human beatbox on the first, Latin-flavoured new song, "My Love". On "Till the End of Time" his high voice gains a rougher grain and, added to lush synthesised strings, makes his often-mentioned childhood schooling in 1970s soul suddenly credible. At other moments in the same song, the listener is reminded that 'N Sync were a byword for the world's whitest pop. Then on "Love Stoned", he finally touches heights that can't be faked. The band hit a clipped, funk groove, Timberlake messianically spreads his arms and begins to sing with airy force, lightly riding clusters of notes. He holds his mic-stand caressingly, and as his perfectly sculpted, shaven head dips under soft red lights - and the music drops to expose his voice - there's an intensity not every pop star can reach. It feels like high craft, not the artful excavation of a heart. "Rock Your Body" then shows that craft's potential. Timberlake's voice, and especially his body, are built into the micro-sliced beats. He moves minimally, freezing his limbs at strange angles: the human component of cyborg soul.
Timbaland, one of the producers of such sounds, comes on for encore "SexyBack". Timberlake is a safe vehicle for his skills. With the likes of "Last Night", he dives deep into sentimentality tonight. I think of David Beckham as I watch him: a malleable, opinion-free figurehead for almost anything, with an aura of honesty that makes this somehow forgivable; a perfect corporate pop cipher, liberated and fascinating only when he moves. But there's no hysteria when he leaves, because his essentially vacant songs and physical ease have put nothing at stake, and you are unlikely to feel much of anything at one of Timberlake's shows, other than admiration for that beautiful, bodily grace.Reuse content