Justin Timberlake’s “Man Of The Woods” Tour At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, March 22nd, 2018, Reviewed
“I’ve got a tradition I always do it when I’m at the Garden, if you’ve seen my shows before you know I’ve got to do this,” Justin Timberlake claimed around the half way point of his “Man Of The Woods” concert last night at MSG, before launching into “(Theme from) New York, New York”. Very sweet and very special and also not true. I saw Justin at MSG in 2000 during NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” tour, and twice in 2007 on the “Future Sex/Love Sound” tour, and he did not perform “New York New York”. I double checked the set lists. Nope, no New York. So why on earth would he claim he did sing it? What did he have to gain?
Timberlake has a certain shallowness about him, a creepy conservatism that manifests itself in off putting behavior and currying of favors where he doesn’t need to. Throwing Janet Jackson under the bus at the nipplegate Superbowl comes to mind, or the crossing every tee musically manipulative “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” his acting career with romcoms over and above all else, his friendship with the equally conservative Jimmy Fallon, and last night at MSG forcing something that needn’t be forced, in an ongoing effort to be loved by all and sundry. This is something essential to JT, From Disney kid to man of the woods, Timberlake is as agreeable a song and dance man as you’ll ever find. But his music, while having swing and power and new Southern smartness, never ever pushed the envelope, never offended, it was the best of the lowest common denominator of modern pop but like JT himself, it always lead from far behind the zeitgeist. At first glance that isn’t art, but look a little closer and it is something like pop art, like Andy Warhol it changed what it copied. But the wrong move was sure to be expressed as such, and after Justin joined Chris Stapleton at the CMA’s for George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away,” the news of the neo-lumberjack (clad, hysterically enough by, by Stella McCartney) returning with an Americana album was met with guffaws. Man Of The Woods has sold disappointingly, and the world at large, for the first time anywhere, turned JT into a laughingstock. It isn’t a great album, “Morning Light,” “Flannel,” “Montana” -none of them were good enough. It was a slackening that began with 20/20 Part Two, and despite moments, the album lacked credibility and sold accordingly. In a word, it was uncool. JT’S deeply misguided Super Bowl performance earlier this year, so careful it couldn’t really breath, aged him before our eyes.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Bono-ing, Timberlake got his mojo back on this first rate, big time, tour. A spectacular career spanning (no NSYNC but otherwise) masterpiece of staging and song and dance that improved on every single song he took off the new album, and, except for a Eric Church rip off sharing a shot with his band, and a downright asinine sitting by the campfire singalong with his backing vocalists, an electrically charged, state of the art event that should put Taylor Swift and Jay-Z and Beyoncé on their heels as they try to improve upon the three stage, arena wide concert. Performed in the, well not round but oblong, with only a narrow behind the stage corridor, which he sang directly to on a number of occasions, Justin and his team of twelve dancers and analogue based backing band the Tennessee Kids tore the Arena to pieces.
The evening opened with an excellent DJ spinning mainstream hip hop and warming up the crowd better than the opening band. The Shadowboxers, ten years into their career and still not quite there, have been mentored by Justin, and their debut EP (in 10 years one EP??) Apollo is Justin lite and so is their performance. It is obvious what JT likes about the trio (plus two), they sound like him and dance soul knee deep in the hoopla while looking like a rock band. JT was quite generous, gave em a whole stage and a huge LCD billboard, The Shadowboxers were good enough but they didn’t really make an impression, in a thankless role they were not thanked.
Justin used his first three songs, “Filthy,” “Midnight Summer Jam,” and “Lovestoned” to take his dancers, moving like extras in a Dr. Pepper commercial, from the main stage, to the middle stage to the bottom stage, and back, then behind the stage, before stopping where they started. The band was all high and hard, horns and rhythmic battering, danced up wild performers, and Timberlake isn’t a great singer until he reaches for the high note and then he is just terrific. JT played with the outro to “Lovestoned” till he changed it to “Sexyback”. That was it, it was everything we’d get and everything we wanted to get in a tight package. Justin’s absolute self-assurance was a pop star façade that taught them other boys, the Harry Styles of the world, how to act.
From their you just stand and cheer for the next 45 minutes, none of it sounds like Americana, “Man Of The Woods” doesn’t sound like Americana, it sounds like “Senorita” whose call and response is indelibly fixed in all our brains. I claimed JT was conservative, he is, but I never claimed he was a coward, he is a positive man who takes every set back in his stride. I once saw film of him being booed while performing a song with the Stones that Timberlake has right in his DNA, “Miss You,” and he just roared through it, the man has guts but he doesn’t spill them the way you want him to. Justin uses his band and dancers (who aren’t bringing sexy back, blame #timesup) as a form of kaleidoscope and he spins them into one pattern after another, so you are never seeing the same pattern again, he chases his songs from stage to stage and place to place, and if he lacks a true human connection, the series of cover songs by the members of his band proves the human is not only not necessary, it is intrusive. JT is better acting the part he was born for, the neutral American. Not the man of the woods, but the man of the woulds.
You are looking at JT but you are seeing his progenitor, Michael Jackson. This is crystal clear when you realize how Pharrell Williams is all over Man Of The Woods, that Neptunes want you back with fresher beats is exactly where JT is at, he isn’t Americana, he dances through it, pretends its a change but it is just a new lick of paint. Nobody is complaining, whether it is Timbaland, Williams, even Chris Stapleton (who began his career writing country songs for country stars). Timberlake pretends Prince is his patron saint but he isn’t at all, Prince and MJ were both eccentric, but MJ was eccentric in a pure pop vein that JT sympathizes with in ways he never has with Prince. You can’t imagine JT singing, let alone writing, “Head,” but “Billie Jean”? You see…
The set wasn’t flawless but it was very close to flawless, the run from “My Love” to “Cry Me A river” to “Mirrors” missed nothing at all. “Mirrors” was the single greatest live moment in JT’s career. In the middle of the middle stage, with a spotlight on him, looking like Michael in “This Is It,” he reached powers that are not normal, that normal people don’t reach, he powered through the bridge to the chorus and back and stopped the world cold.
That would be enough for any concert, for any man. he didn’t need to lie about “New York, New York,” Justin Timberlake was New York, New York.