After two decades in the pop stratosphere, Justin Timberlake has cemented his status as an elder statesman of the industry. With four albums under his belt, it’s understandable how the now 37-year-old would want to shake things up and deviate from his trusty blue-eyed soul formula. Following a five-year hiatus and the birth of his son, Timberlake attempts to ground himself — yet falters — in a country-R&B crossover that risks artistry for novelty on his latest endeavor, Man of the Woods.
The album’s denim-laden, wood-burning, glossy-rustic trailer promised new territory for pop’s golden boy, claiming it’s inspired by “[his] son, [his] wife, [his] family” and his Memphis roots. It also featured him in the studio with tried-and-true collaborator Pharrell, igniting some hope that we would get a glorious morsel of early JT. (Not shown in the teaser were Timbaland, Danja and The Neptunes, all of whom reunited with Timberlake as well to produce this album.)
Considering his frequent collaboration with the Carters, it’s clear that Timberlake took multiple pages out of their hit playbook, specifically Beyonce’s Lemonade, as he tries to shift the focus on his Southern upbringing and budding persona as a family man.
While he’s insisted that he hasn’t gone country, Timberlake still injects a meaty helping of its elements into his signature R&B style, though it barely translates well. Tonally, the album doesn’t strike so much of a versatile note as a rather troubling dichotomy. He opens it with the bass-heavy “Filthy,” a quite visceral song about sex — with a sample of someone audibly panting and shuddering — and closes it out with the softer “Young Man,” which features audio of his two-year-old son laughing and blowing kisses. (It’s almost traumatizing, to be honest.)
One could argue that the album’s incongruity shows how Timberlake is stuck in this threshold of embracing fatherhood and forsaking his virility, ironically enough in front of a hyper-masculine backdrop like the wilderness. It would complicate the narrative in a way that’s much more fascinating — but it likely isn’t the intention.
On “Filthy,” Timberlake seems to dust off the throbbing, dirty synths that typified his style with 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, arguably ranking as one of the few familiar (and catchy) tracks.
At the same time, there are a handful of gems that creatively bridge the two genres to produce irresistible dance tracks. “Midnight Summer Jam” pulls off blending harmonicas and country rhythm guitars over a disco bassline, all while throwing in some orchestral strings. Enlisting the help of country star Chris Stapleton, “Say Something” punctuates gruff vocals and handclaps with buoyant 808s, making for an earnest jam about foot-in-mouth syndrome.
For what it’s worth, Timberlake has never been a genius wordsmith— he can be heard opening “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows Interlude” with the lines, “She’s freaky and she knows it / She’s freaky and I like it” — but it’s always been muted by his skilled vocal range and indelible hooks. However, this time around, his songwriting just sounds recklessly goofy. It’s most apparent when he leans on the sultry, which should be in his wheelhouse by now, except his lyrics about sex are supremely awkward. In particular, Timberlake comes uncomfortably close to illustrating coitus on “Sauce” as he zooms in on the unsexy details: “Ooh, I love your pink, you like my purple / That color right between those, that’s where I worship.” One could equate it to getting a lap dance from Ned Flanders who happens to be unbuttoning an expensive flannel shirt.
Another song that suffers from cheesy lyrics is the album’s second single, “Supplies,” a post-apocalyptic trap allegory for sex and codependence. Its chorus mostly relies on simple innuendoes while propped up against a pop culture reference to carry it through (“Some s—t’s ’bout to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head / The world could end now, baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead”). Its video goes harder in the paint with the Mad Max aesthetic in a very literal performance of its lyrics. (A small child at the end is seen emerging from a wasteland’s sand dunes to break the fourth wall and plead for the viewer to die.)
The biggest question mark would have to lie in the track “Hers (interlude),” in which actress and Timberlake’s spouse Jessica Biel, presumably reading from the diary of a serial killer, shares these lines over melodramatic keys:
“When I wear his shirt, it feels like, like his skin over mine. And the little holes and tears and shreds on it are, are, are the, the memories of the past that I wasn’t there for, but, that somehow I, I, I feel like I understand more when it’s against my skin. It’s an armor, like a barrier from the world. Like, our secret nobody else knows and I like that, you know? It makes me feel like a woman, it makes me feel sexy, it makes me feel…it makes me feel like I’m his.”
In theory, the interlude could be offering a lovely metaphor about becoming one with one’s partner, but its delivery errs on sounding inauthentic and gratuitous. It feels like this track, among others such as the title song, exists merely in an attempt to spice up Biel and Timberlake’s marriage while we all need to sit through it.
In spite of his effort to unify his humble roots and well-established style, all in the name of family, Timberlake seems to be quite lost on a largely forgetful album. Let’s just hope he finds his way out of the woods soon enough.
Top Tracks: “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Say Something,” “Montana,” “Breeze Off the Pond”