Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods screams midlife crisis but has its moments
Lace up, it's time to go hiking.
Justin Timberlake has always had a tight grip on the creative direction of his music. His albums have always had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They’ve all painted a picture of a different part of his personality.
Justified was when the boy done became a man. It was his introduction to the world as a solo artist. Breaking free from the NSYNC shackles, he showed the world who he really was while showcasing his love for black music and his ability to do it well, with respect, and without the need for cultural appropriation.
FutureSex/LoveSounds saw Justin Timberlake push boundaries. A space age disco offering that saw eight minute songs become the norm, they effortlessly blended with one another in an almost Prince-like fashion. Seeing way ahead of the curve, this was JT the visionary - with a lot of help from Timbaland, who at the time was on fire.
Then there was The 20/20 Experience. If the words to Jidenna’s “Classic Man” needed a visual representation before the Nigerian showed up with his smash hit then Justin’s “Suit & Tie” shit would have done the trick. His first release in seven years, it felt like the evolution of JT was complete. He was a reputable gentleman newly married to a woman he loved dearly, with a successful career, and he looked the part too. What more did he need?
Well, apparently he needed to lace up his hiking boots and backpack his way into a forest of self-discovery. Or at least that’s what the teaser trailer for Man of the Woods led us to believe.
Many who saw the teaser made an assumption from the jump that Justin Timberlake’s new album was going to be one filled with country songs. Stereotyping the forthcoming offering because of the outback setting, his attire, and the title of the album itself, fans were thrown off completely when “Filthy” arrived with its electronic bass dumps and futuristic funk feel - there wasn’t a single Kumbaya or poncho in sight.
Now that’s not to say a bluegrass-influenced project wouldn’t be good, it’s just a pretty huge leap even for such a skilled trend surfer as Justin Timberlake. The potential to wipe out as quickly as Patrick Swayze in the final scene of Point Break would be huge.
So what does Man of the Woods actually sound like?
It’s a bit of a mess if I’m being honest. But it does have its moments of excellence.
I’ve made it clear on countless occasions that to me “Filthy” is just not a good record. It’s unforgettable. It’s all chaos and no clarity. It feels like multiple instrumental layers were thrown at a wall and what stuck became the song. There’s a lot of potential but no actual execution of said potential. And I’m not the only one, the majority of feedback hasn’t been good.
So why open your album with a dud? It appears JT is keen to follow a trend that Eminem has also succumb to - he decided to open his latest album with the lacklustre “Walk on Water” after all of its public criticisms. It also leads fans down a certain path of expectation: "Is this the direction the album’s going to follow?" Actually, no. There is no other record on Man of the Woods that even sounds remotely close. If anything, “Filthy” should have been an iTunes-only bonus cut.
If he had gone ahead and done that then it would have made way for the vibrant and heritage-proud “Midnight Summer Jam” - now that would have been the best way to kickstart proceedings. Chanting, “act like the south ain’t the shit,” JT is quick to highlight the place he likes to call home. A Memphis, Tennessee native - I bet that Three-6-Mafia feature on FutureSex/LoveSounds doesn’t seems so weird anymore - this is a slick, well-oiled moment on the album thanks to JT’s simplistic town-reppin’ promotional lyrics and the trademark drum kicks and string textures provided by The Neptunes.
But there's a run of songs from "Sauce" to "Supplies", the latter of which sounds like he's trying too hard to conform to today's youthful pop radio sound that incorporates "trap", that feel empty. They're not memorable at all.
Listening to Man of the Woods from front to back proves hard at times. Like a man searching for something both personally and professionally, it feels like a midlife crisis delivered in audio form. But what is he searching for? Like, really. I can’t fathom that this is what it feels like to be fast approaching 40, rich, happy and successful.
But let’s be fair to Justin, there are some highlights that need celebrating.
Now this is going to seem like a big statement, but I can’t lie: “Breeze Off the Pond” might be one of the best records in Justin Timberlake’s repertoire. Yeah, I said it! And I’m screaming it from the rooftops too.
It actually caught me a bit by surprise.
I had fallen into a trance built from boredom listening to the tiresome “Flannel” - it sounds like a poor Mumford & Sons tribute song. Then I started to wake up a bit when “Montana” caught my ear, but it was the mid-tempo groove, sparkling synths and Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riff on “Breeze Off the Pond” that grabbed me by the balls. Seasoned with some JT vocals that felt right at home embedded deep into The Neptunes’ atmospherically refined soundscape, it’s a down south soul record with a touch of Hollywood to take the edge off.
I hate to admit this, especially being I’m such a big fan, but Man of the Woods might have actually been better without Timbaland on it. He’s just not the same Timbaland that revolutionised music with his groundbreaking style and hard to mimic techniques that in turn gave us Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Aaliyah. Out of the four tracks he had a hand in, the only one worth anything is the Chris Stapleton-assisted “Say Something”.
Mirroring the same type of progressive country energy with a Hip Hop twist that he brought to the table when producing Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance album back in 2003 - which Justin Timberlake actually appeared on - it’s one of the purest moments on the album. You believe what’s being said (even though there's not many lyrics on the song) and you actually feel it. Maybe it’s the authenticity that Stapleton adds, or maybe it’s the super simplistic lyrical content coupled with the aching acoustic backdrop. Whatever it is, this is a stand out for sure.
The rest of the album’s finer moments are provided by The Neptunes. “Morning Light” featuring Alicia Keys is a gem of a collaboration, while “Livin’ Off the Land” really relies on its production - but this is precisely why Pharrell and Chad were hired in the first place.
Hell bent on self-discovery throughout the 16 tracks on Man of the Woods, it becomes very repetitive very quickly. There’s only so many ways you can express a desire to go home and soak in the rivers of familiarity because its what made you who you are. It lacks the direction his previous efforts had. I see the theme, trust me, I do. In fact, I’m a big fan of concept albums, but this one feels unenthusiastic and way too loose. The highs are high, but the lows prove too low.
With no real fanfare commercially, this album won’t tarnish Justin Timberlake’s legacy, it’ll just prove to be a footnote in an otherwise transcendent career.
Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods is out now on RCA Records.