Justin Timberlake: Shepherds Bush Empire, London, Thursday July 13

Justin Timberlake: Shepherds Bush Empire, London, Thursday July 13

Robot dancers and Britney lookalikes watch out, Trousersnake’s in town

We English don’t like to admit that sometimes we need a little American assistance. We like to feel superior. Now, though, we’re in trouble – and we need help. Yes, ever since James Blunt left the army, an axis of acoustic evil (Melua, Tunstall) has ruled our airwaves, lulling businessmen to sleep at the wheel and steering dinner party conversation from politics to sorbet recipes. Indie kids hate them, rock bands slate them, hacks berate them – but their power is total.

Enter Justin Timberlake, the only man that can save mainstream radio through a potent combination of cheek and laser-sighted pop choruses. Tonight, in front of gawping super-fans and salivating Sony big-wigs, Justin announces his return with filthy bravado. We get no elaborate costume changes, no light displays, barely any ‘Wow, white boys can dance’ moves and no hint whatsoever of Kylie’s arse or Janet’s nipples. What we do get is Timberlake supported by a jazz band, dressed like Dick Tracy and leaping between piano and guitar like a hyperactive child. And it’s great.

Stepping onstage to the strains of the Alton Towers music, his path is lit by the light of a thousand camera phones. Which is fair enough: it’s unlikely that the obsessives willing to fork out £200 for a ticket will ever again get this close to their idol without breaking some kind of court order. “Justin! Justin! Justin!” they wail, before he slips into an extended funk version of his fuck-you-Britney classic, ‘Cry Me A River’ morphing it with Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ for added brutality (get over it dude). From there he pounces into ‘Señorita’ with polished charm, tempting horrific Peter Crouch moves from every man present and giggling coyly in false surprise at the kind of frenzied shrieks and applause which must soundtrack his life.

“This is a new song. If you like it then great, if you don’t then fuck you!” he smoulders before slipping into ‘My Love’, an R&B track revolving around a shuffling electronic bassline and G-Funk melody which is reminiscent of classic Michael Jackson (some things never change).

Far duller is pedestrian ballad ‘Until The End Of Time’, full of the kind of overwrought sentimentality barely seen since Boyz II Men. ‘Love Stoned’ is better, seeing JT swivel his hips in the manner that only he… well, in the manner that only American men can. Next, he pulls out a guitar for an impressive version of ‘Like I Love You’. The staccato rhythms are irresistable, but not as irresistable as the urge to wire his head shut as we’re led into a cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Pop stars: know your limits.

While a few new songs are greeted with a collective shrug, there’s no doubting Timberlake’s ability to make a crowd sweat and ‘Rock Your Body’ encourages yet more C-3PO dancing (someone teach this nation to strut!). The highlight comes with new single ‘SexyBack’. Joined onstage by omnipresent US rent-an-MC Timbaland, JT jiggles his way through its sordid shuffle as tongues loll beneath him. It’s vapid, indulgent and vaguely nauseating, but compared to the drippy buskers that pass for pop music these days, Trousersnake is Sid Vicious. He may not be the first line in credibility, but against the axis of acoustic evil he’s the last line in defence.

Alex Miller