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Justin Timberlake – The O2, London 02/04/14

04 April 2014, 16:23 | Written by Christian Cottingham

That noise. Why do they have to make that noise? There’s not even anyone onstage and the screaming’s started, piercing and shrill and terrifying like the cry from Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers – imagine, every night, having to walk out to that, to 20,000 people weaponising their vocal chords in your direction. Someday soon there’ll be wars waged with this.

Or perhaps it’s just a response to the O2 Arena, to the sterile purgatory of glass and mall and £4.90 bottles of Becks, to restaurants and VIP experiences and whole walls of advertising for Credit Suisse. Yeah, screaming seems pretty damn appropriate, actually. It’s places like this that cause Jihads to be launched.

But it’s difficult to stay cynical once the lights go down. Justin Timberlake’s arrival is heralded, humbly, by a colossal orchestral swell, silhouettes of string players projected vast onto a massive Blockbusters board of interlocking hexagons as the man himself rises through the floor, his 15-strong band the Tennessee Kids following soon behind and launching into “Pusher Love Girl”. It’s a lot to take in, from the live footage deftly spliced against graphics and video above and behind to the dancers that appear and disappear at will and a lightshow that seems to have taken its cue from the Shock and Awe Iraq campaign: faced with this there’s little choice but to surrender, dumbstruck.

But it doesn’t let up, the sensory barrage. The lasers and the sharp suits and the white piano and the visuals and the casual, tossed-away Kanye raps – yeah, sure, that’s cool. But then those hexagons come alive for “TKO”, the stage pulsing and contorting in a trick thieved from Amon Tobin and Etienne de Crecy, projections hitting shapes to create an illusion of depth that all those hours, all those thousands of hours of terrible YouTube footage just doesn’t convey. It’s a staggering production, every superlative available coming up woefully inadequate, and that’s without even mentioning the runway that - wait, we’ll get to that later.

With so much going on it’s a little sad that so much of the effort seems to have gone relatively unnoticed, those cameraphones kept trained by so many on just Timberlake himself. But his is a magnetic presence, his charisma effortless and his performance without fault. “I’m 33 now,” he says at one point, “I need a rest,” but besides the dripping sweat the exertion never shows – it’s amazing really, across a two and a half hour set, just how hard JT works, especially given that all he need really do is exist and most of us would scream just the same.

More amazing is just how good all this sounds – that the spectacle is, if anything, frequently outmatched by the songs. But then these are some huge songs, from “Rock Your Body” to “Like I Love You”, “Suit & Tie” to “SexyBack”. “My Love” is stretched out and teased, first a lounge song, then its synths dropped and snatched back cruelly. “Cry Me A River” is enormous, a first-half set closer that sees the lyrical melodrama and raises it with tornados wracking the stage, the sound swelling in competition until finally, finally it breaks for intermission and a fuckload of tinnitus.

Act Two takes a different tone, appearing looser and more laid-back, with backing singers sat on stools and, for “Drink Me Away”, lying on the floor with their legs entwined. “I’m sorry – I thought we were London,” says Timberlake, bottle in hand. “Y’all drink, right?” “Tunnel Vision” gets the energy levels back up again though, even if its porny visuals – has the man learnt nothing from that Superbowl furore? – come off a little Nuts Magazine.

And then just as it seems the show has played all its hands it plays its ace, the runway at the front of the stage elevating and then driving the length of the arena, Timberlake leaning out over the side stalls as the audience claw manically towards him as he passes. It’s a clever move, and a thoughtful one given how much many in the crowd had paid to, up to this point, stare forlornly at some distant lights. It also allows for some digression from his own material, with Timberlake downing a shot from the bar and strapping on an acoustic guitar for Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”, for Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”.

Sure, he’s showing off, but it doesn’t seem like showing off, and for a performance that takes in so many genres it’s striking that nothing here seems insincere – that a setlist seemingly determined to Contain All Music actually comes pretty darned close to succeeding. Sure, if we were being brutally honest we could argue that some songs are weaker than others, that the medley section sags a bit and some of the arrangements – those wretched guitar solos – are ill-advised, but that would be churlish. What the 20:20 Experience does is take an arena show with all its attendant cliches – hydraulics! costume changes! intervals! – and subsume them into a show that doesn’t seem the slightest bit cliched, that seems effortless and endlessly fun and far more about the music than a show this size usually cares about being. Dammit, by the time it all winds up with “Mirrors” I think I might be screaming too, arms outstretched and lungs sore and wondering, slightly fearfully, whether there’s anyone, anywhere, who could resist this.

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