Eleven years have passed since Justin Timberlake toured in support of his 2006 album “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” The Madison Square Garden show was cut into an HBO special at a time when the singer stood tall at the center of pop music on the shoulders of a forward-thinking album. My, how times have changed.
Five years have passed since Timberlake compensated for an even longer full-length album hiatus by splitting “The 20/20 Experience” into two projects. The first break saw him break into acting and wed actress Jessica Biel; the latest saw him become a father. But the latest also saw him drift further from pop music’s nucleus — a distance felt on his latest album, “Man of the Woods.” The album, which Timberlake said was inspired by his family and Tennessee roots, was strategically released two days before his record-setting third Super Bowl halftime performance (and the first since 2004’s “Nipplegate” incident, which has only hindered Janet Jackson’s career) and promoted with marketing collateral packed with Marlboro Americana.
Timberlake’s implied “rebranding” seemed to embrace his whiteness — alarming to many, in this era of reactionary viral outrage, because his success as a solo artist came from his embrace of black culture. The promo for “Man of the Woods” proved a provocative pump-fake, as the music was mostly standard Timberlake fare guided by his gurus: producers Timbaland and the Neptunes. Unfortunately, all the flannel in the world couldn’t warm critical reception to “Man of the Woods.”
However, Timberlake will always find solace in arena shows packed with the adoring fan base he’s grown considerably since his days of pubescent Jodeci covers alongside Ryan Gosling on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Sunday night’s two-hour performance at Capital One Arena was a loud, clear reminder.
Timberlake took the main stage to the warped sounds of “Filthy” as a matrix of lights beamed through the venue. The introduction was reminiscent of the song’s video, in which Timberlake portrays a Steve Jobs-like figure. The turtleneck and glasses were replaced by the camouflage he and his dancers donned while marching to the other two stages adorned with fake trees.
The album’s theme was present throughout the evening, as tall mini-screens displaying aerial forest shots and close-ups of wolves surrounded the second stage. The sound of actual crickets filled the building between “Filthy” and “Midnight Summer Jam” — ASMR for any woodland folk in attendance. Timberlake even performed the album’s title track, a Neptunes-produced ode to Biel, amid faux tall grass. But for all of his woodsman pride, Timberlake remains at his most effective when performing hits from when he was better connected to the outside world.
On Sunday night, that meant jumping behind the keys for “Señorita,” from his 2002 solo debut, “Justified.” And behind a wood-encased music production controller that emerged from beneath the stage as Timberlake played notes of “My Love,” a la Kanye West at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, before D.C.-born guitarist Mike Scott ripped through a solo. He returned to the MPC for the eerie “Cry Me a River” as smoke billowed along the walkway connecting the stages.
The evening’s turning point arrived when Timberlake and the majority of his band, the Tennessee Kids, migrated to the middle stage for celebratory shots and a minimalist performance of 2013’s “Drink You Away.” The song is evidence of Timberlake doing blues-influenced music before wrapping his country-boy roots around an album concept. It was a smooth transition into the campfire portion of his set.
After grabbing an acoustic guitar for a stripped down rendition of “Until the End of Time,” Timberlake allowed his background vocalists to “tell their stories” through covers of classics: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”; a bluesy rendition of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”; a soulful take of the Beatles’ “Come Together”; and John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to complete the segment.
Timberlake kept the guitar for “Say Something,” his “Man of the Woods” duet with country singer Chris Stapleton. On the bridge, he sang, “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” Despite a governing theme, “Man of the Woods” feels empty. Fortunately for Timberlake, many people enjoy empty fun.
The remainder of Timberlake’s set included a medley of past hits such as “Summer Love,” “Rock Your Body” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” his contribution to the “Trolls” soundtrack. But the final leg felt rushed, as though Timberlake was, in fact, racing to meet the curfew he alluded to earlier in the evening.
Still, Timberlake’s performance mostly met the suit-and-tie uniformity audiences have come to expect. “Man of the Woods” is a misstep, but it doesn’t demand a reappraisal of his career — no matter the positioning, he’s doing what he’s felt justified in doing since 2002.
Justin Timberlake may feel at home in the woods, but the arena is his true element. And hate it or love it, he’s reached ubiquity there. Accepting that is the true 20/20 experience.