The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, November 04, 2002
“Justified” by Justin Timberlake

How do you progress into adulthood, into maturity, when everyone around you wants you to stay a child? Do you fight against it? Not everyone does. But a living still has to be made. You either opt simply to get old only in a biological sense, otherwise staying as you are, like Jagger, kept on the treadmill by the fear of being found out, of not having finished that degree – or you try to reconnect with the world as you mature, if of course you are allowed to mature.

This is clearly a problem with Justin Timberlake. Everyone knows from “Pop” and “Girlfriend” that he had doubts even 18 months ago. That “Pop” and “Girlfriend” were the records Michael Jackson should have made, instead of crying pantomime tears over underprivileged people whom he’d have shot if they ever strayed onto Nevermind-land.

It has already become a cliché to argue that Justified, Timberlake’s debut solo album, is the album Jacko should maybe have made right after Off The Wall. And Timberlake has that vulnerable, audibly not quite mature contralto of a voice still – the same voice Jackson had in 1975, when he was singing castoffs like “One Day In Your Life” (the sentiments of the latter song are recast in a very different and more disturbing way on the current album’s “Take It From Here,” but more of that in a moment). So this is someone who wants to become an adult but doesn’t sound quite ready yet.

Of course Timberlake has enlisted the aid of both Timbaland and the Neptunes to help him out; it has to be said that the latter pull it off far more convincingly than the former – as with Quincy Jones on Off The Wall, the Neptunes understand the importance of space and silence in pop as so few others these days do.

Justified opens with “Senorita,” an easy-going start with that “Quiz Show” electric piano again and the general aura of goofing around in the studio. He’s warming up, fretting over why his intended has not received her “prize.” He even goes as far as to initiate a studio singalong (“guys sing this part, girls that…”) with which everyone joins in enthusiastically. Timberlake signs off with a wink: “Gentleman, good night. Ladies….good morning!”

But can he see it through, or has he just gotta get through this?

“Like I Love You,” the first single, is this album’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” down to the nervous fumbling with words in the intro before the acoustic guitar and beats stealthily kick in. It’s like the belated antithesis to George Michael’s “Faith.” As with that (acoustically-driven) song, the singer’s intended passions are not directed towards a specific Other, but towards his audience, or whom he would like to be his audience. “If it were up to me, your face will change,” he remarks early on. In the chorus he sings, very meaningfully, “Late at night I talk to you…But you will know the difference when I touch you.” It’s a plea not to take him off your stereo, not to cast him from your life but rather recast him in his intended new shape. Ultimately, as the Belgian lass has already remarked elsewhere, this is a song directed towards himself – hence the album title of course – we have to justify him, as does he, to continue as a receptacle for dreams and a projector of interpretable passions. We have to think of him as a blank sheet upon which we can write what we choose – be mad and discursive, but for God’s sake don’t let him in on your agenda; even though he DEMANDS that you reinterpret him, let him punctu(M)re you rather than just please you.

His plea halfway through: “if you give me just the chance TO BE A MAN” erupting through the record like a rising iceberg.

The way in which at the fadeout, everything suddenly drops back to a plaintive synth line, sounding very close to “Trans-Europe Express.” Timberlake muses that “I used to dream about this when I was a boy…never thought it would end up this way…everybody dance,” he instructs, solemnly, uncertainly.

“(Oh No) What You Got” is agreeable enough, but demonstrates that Timbaland is still stuck in his Eastern rut – he really seems to have saved 18 months’ worth of punctum for the imminent Missy Elliott album, which is anything but a rut – and it’s left to the Neptunes to take up the theme of uncertainty/the Other again on the hymn “Take It From Here.” Here, against a warm bath of strings which could have come straight off The Lexicon Of Love, Timberlake offers himself as guardian angel/protector – but goes beyond benificence almost to the point of obsessive ownership. “I wanna be your lake…any problems that you have, I wanna wash them away.” He wants to be her sky, her air “so when you feel that you can’t breathe, I’ll be there,” her answer “all the time – when you see how I put your life before mine, with no question.” Actually there’s one hell of a question; it sounds as though he wants to suffocate the Other and obliterate her life with his. He goes on to say how much he wants “to review all your plans.” Playing God? Or is HE the one needing protection?

“I wanna be your mother…” Pause.

Right at the end: “I’ll be there MOMMY…”

You guessed it. It’s Kristeva again. He wants to escape and dominate the maternal body but cannot escape his fundamental attachment to it. He cannot reach, or become, the Stranger.

And this offer is NOT unconditional, as evinced by the following track, “Cry Me A River” – not the Julie London standard, but the same subject matter. I’ll be true to you as long as you’re true to me, but if NOT – you’re on your own, cry ME a river, dare to need me and I’ll condemn you to nothingness. Timbaland is in charge again here, and it’s a slower rewrite of “We Need A Resolution” with an unearthly vocal threnody at its intro, but with Timberlake refusing even to entertain the need of being supposed to change. He now pours out contempt, even though he hates no one more than himself. It’s a static vocal performance; as with Aaliyah at her most distant, almost inhuman in its lack of (com)passion.

A light shines again with “Rock Your Body,” the best song Chic never wrote (indeed, much of this album seems to revisit and reconstruct a selectively imagined pop 1979/80). An irreducible summer stroll of a groove wherein Timberlake tries to pull – more or less – but with hesitance (“Why are you so quick to walk away?”) and realisation of the exercise’s futility – hear the desperation underlying the assumed bravado of “I’ll have you naked before the end of this song.” There’s no evidence that he in fact succeeds.

Similarly, “Nothin’ Else” might be the best song that Stevie Wonder never wrote. It hardly raises its voice above a whisper. He imagines an ideal scenario: “I was just walking that day aimlessly/you picked a perfect day to bump into me.” He considers the options of starting a relationship but the doubts escalate as the song continues: he ends up muttering about “health regimes” and “ultimatums being no fun” and the music comes to a dead stop – only for the song to start again at the beginning; this time he is just walking aimlessly. Nil else. Like the Temptations, he may have imagined the whole thing. He is wondering whether to love himself and, if so, if he is any kind of substitute for anything.

You only notice later on that the chord sequence of the verse is identical to that of “Paint It Black.”

On “Last Night” he continues to bemoan complications which, in his perspective, ruin any love affair. “In your eyes I see a second chance” he sings (but for whom? Himself more than her?) and ends by him reminiscing about just being hand in hand, in love, and exclaiming “Can’t we just go back to being like that again?” – pause – and then he SNEERS “baby!” and sniggers. The most sardonic use of the word “baby” since the DJ/alien dialogue which begins the Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.”

Back to Timbaland for the next three tunes: “Still On My Brain” which is as dull as any Timbaland ballad tends to be; “(And She Said) Take Me Now” which features guest Janet Jackson, though the latter is used to surprisingly little effect (the Neptunes did far better with her on Beenie’s “Feel It Boy”). The sparse DAF-type minimalist electro fadeout is quite good, though. “Right For Me” reduces the backing to fuzz synth and clattering percussion, with a cameo from Bubba Sparxxx, but again any of the mixes of “Grindin’” by the Clipse outdo it.

Thankfully the Neptunes come back on board for what should have been the closing track (let’s leave the dismal MOR ballad “Never Again” out of this – despite the fact that it may or may not be about Britney, and will probably be #1 for 85 weeks), or indeed the bonus track “Worthy Of” which continues and reinforces his self-doubt, but musically the latter seems to be based on a “Float On” sample) – “Let’s Take A Ride.” Here the Other whom he is addressing has just been laid off from her job and is feeling down. He implores her to come for a ride with him, out into the countryside, even spend a night with him, but y’know it’s not an obligation. Again the music is summery and unhurried. But is he addressing a potential partner or is he addressing YOU? Go for a spin for an hour with this CD in your car stereo; forget the world for awhile but don’t LEAVE it. Or rather, don’t leave ME. Does this make me a better human being, he is saying – does this mean that I’m an adult, that I can cross over to you? He is almost begging us to make up our own minds and form our own perspectives. Be careful you don’t tell him your answer too soon though – the next chapter might not be as interesting if we knew exactly where Justin Timberlake was going to go. Wherever it is, though, it might be worth your going with him.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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