Album Review: Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods”

It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a backlash against a pop artist, this sudden, this intense, as if folks have been waiting for just the right target for their knives.

With Taylor Swift and reputation there was some of it, but the ‘snake’ heel turn first exploded in 2016, and the meltdown took over a year and a half to truly coalesce. With Justin Timberlake, with the combined double whammy of his album release and second Super Bowl performance, it seemed like all the cultural backlash was finally coming to a head…

And I’m already sick of it, partially because it feels like I’m one of the few who are taking notes surrounding the relative complexity of Timberlake’s issues, and the level of historical revisionism going on really does not sit well, especially among some critics. What, you’re only now taking issue with the fact the production on Justified was originally intended for Michael Jackson, and how Timberlake has been relatively remorseless in building his stage persona wholesale from Michael and Prince and other, better artists, even having the nerve to diss them? What, you’re only now angry about how Timberlake seemingly got away scot-free with that stunt at the 2004 Super Bowl where Janet Jackson’s career was shattered? What, you’re only now realizing that so much of Timberlake’s professional career has been the sort of audacious, ego-driven, style-over-substance, I-can’t-believe-how-much-I’m-getting-away-with-this act that translates to his records being overblown, self-aggrandizing, and more sloppily written than anyone dared say? What, did you all forget he wrote ‘Carry Out’?

But here’s the thing: I get it. The 2000s were a weird, twisted decade that allowed Timberlake’s embrace of futuristic artificiality to flourish, and it certainly helped he was backed up by some of the best producers of that time with The Neptunes and Timbaland. It was so easy to throw Janet and Michael and Prince under the bus – all of whom were straining under the weight of their own legacies with music that increasingly didn’t measure up – all in the face of that veneer, which to his credit Timberlake could carry almost on ego and raw talent alone. And even into 2013 with his two 20/20 Experience records, he still got critical acclaim by many of the folks now lining up to crucify him – and if you go back to both of my reviews, I didn’t share that acclaim, because I’ve never really been a Justin Timberlake fan at any point. Sure, he was a decent enough pop star, I don’t think all of his success is unwarranted, but it’s why so much of the historical revisionism here bothers the hell out of me – don’t act like you guys weren’t propping up the institutions that allowed Timberlake to get away with as much as he did, especially in 2013 where you let a Justin TImberlake ripoff named Robin Thicke dominate the charts with ‘Blurred Lines’, or last year, when it seemed like the quickest way to blow up as a trap rapper is to have sexual assault cases! And just like with Robin Thicke and Paula, when it looked like Timberlake was going to be exposing a more personal side of himself on Man Of The Woods, everyone saw this as the moment of vulnerability to pounce, especially if there was any sign the music might have slipped in quality. Now Timberlake has not helped himself here – the fact that he was tone-deaf enough to think he could get away with a Prince projection along side him at the half-time show was gross on a number of levels – but currently Man Of The Woods has a lower Metacritic score than Maroon 5’s Red Pill Blues, and if that’s not a sign the backlash has flown off the rails, I don’t know what is, especially as I didn’t think ‘Filthy’ or ‘Supplies’ were that bad! But okay, maybe like Paula it was that bad and Timberlake deserved it all… so what did we get on Man Of The Woods?

Well… it’s better than Paula… but really, the more listens I gave to Man Of The Woods, the more I’m convinced that while the backlash is overblown, Justin Timberlake really brought a ton of this on himself for a record that just isn’t as layered, compelling, or portentous as it was marketed. If it was released by anybody else at a different time, it’d be branded as a mostly inoffensive or even passable slice of acoustic-heavy R&B, feeling underwritten and too long but with enough sincerity to have some charm to it – but by trying to sell it as anything more than that… again, that was probably Timberlake’s biggest mistake.

Granted, there’s a certain amount of audacity in how this record has been pushed, because for as twisted and warped as ‘Filthy’ is with the contorting synth and bass, or the ominous knock of ‘Supplies’ – which despite my problems with it in the ad-libs and lack of greater atmosphere continues to get better with every listen for me – it’s really a lot less challenging than those songs might appear. If you dig into the production, Timberlake has described this record as ‘Americana with 808s’, and while I don’t entirely agree, I at least see what he was trying to do, taking a foundation of acoustic layers and pairing them with the dense percussion and blubbery basslines that have lingered from his 2000s R&B heyday. And I’ll go a step further and say for more often than not, I can hear it kind of working – if you’re drawing a comparison to the acoustic pop that barely can call itself country like Sam Hunt or Old Dominion or Walker Hayes or maybe even Andy Grammer, it’s often way too staccato and choppy and lacking significant groove, something that Timberlake leans into. And hell, with songs like ‘Higher, Higher’ or ‘Montana’ I can see that working – the basslines are developed, the funkier edge is sharpened, and it’s territory that genuinely feels fresh for him. Hell, I’d take that over the quick strumming, weird sandy stutters, or out-of-nowhere harmonica breakdown on ‘Wave’ and ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, or that atonal squeal that’s tacked onto a passable melodic hook on the title track, or just the undercooked crooning of ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Breeze Off The Pond’, but it ties into my first significant problem with the instrumentation: the production is way too damn clean. Yeah, the acoustic guitars have significant warmth, but the busier grooves from Timbaland and the Neptunes are polished within an inch of their life, which isn’t exactly a great option when you’re trying to sound rootsy and organic or atmospheric.

And this only becomes more pronounced when this record tilts closer to country: again, the heavily multi-tracked hooks do make Timberlake’s increasingly frail falsetto workable and there are melodic progressions on ‘Sauce’ and ‘The Hard Stuff’ and the collaboration with Chris Stapleton on ‘Say Something’ that lean towards that sound, but those melodies demand a low end that feels cohesive with the acoustics, not one with all the clicks, whirs, and ad-libs that feel imported from your average modern day trap song, especially when Timberlake decides to bring in backing vocals owing more to doo-wop than Migos. Or go to ‘Sauce’, not the first time that Timberlake tries to bring in a rougher sound in the guitars, but the buzzier tones just don’t mesh well in the mix, especially against his delivery. But that’s indicative of Timberlake himself on the microphone, as you can tell he’s flipflopping between the funky R&B in which he’s comfortable, the boy-band crooning of his roots, and attempts to sound a little more soulful and ragged that he just can’t pull off – look, ‘Mirrors’ was the closest attempt five years ago, and even this is an album where you’re opposite Chris Stapleton, who even mixed a little lower and him trying to play for subtlety blows Timberlake out of the water here. He fares a little better opposite Alicia Keys on ‘Morning Light’, but you can tell she was phoning that one in, a ballad that feels utterly tepid – sadly like many of the emotional sentiments across this record.

And this is where we’re going to talk about lyrics, and arguably what’ll hold this record back the most… and really, they don’t have to. Again, breaking this down to the basics these are a set of mostly interchangeable, occasionally goofy but tolerable hookup and sex jams – not really delivered with much intensity, but Timberlake has enough charisma to skate by. The problem is that this record is framing itself as having so much more meaning, highlighting Timberlake as this hypermasculine ‘man of the woods’ that feels profoundly undercooked, half because he can’t really sell it and half because it’s rooted in the same ego-trip that’s characterized all of his albums! How else could you explain the title track, where you get the line ‘if I take it too far, that’s okay because you know I hear the making up’s fun’ – why he thinks a line like that will click for pop audiences in 2018 is utterly beyond me! Or take the interlude from his wife Jessica Biel on ‘Hers’, which ends with how she feels like she’s ‘his’ – cute sentiment and she sells it well, but the language choice reflects a certain myopia. Or take ‘The Hard Stuff’, which tries to play the working class anthem and lecture folks on playing the lottery, and while I get his sentiment, the presentation and projection he’s attempting with this rootsier vibe feels disconnected from the realities of that experience. And that gets distracting when you have songs like ‘Say Something’ that seem to demand he speak up or even acknowledge it’s more important for him to say nothing and listen… except when he just has to say something – or go to ‘Young Man’ where he’s talking about his son and how he should learn to stand for something. But it’s all painfully nebulous – all ‘something’ that matters a great deal, but there’s nothing even abstract to add weight to it, especially with all of those fragmented interludes that make nearly all of these tracks run long for no reason. And yeah, I get that pop doesn’t need to make significant statements… but you get the impression Timberlake was certainly trying to make a statement, and it feels vague and thin, if anything just
reinforcing the idea of Justin Timberlake as this image.

And here’s why it just doesn’t connect, and it ties to one of the songs I kind of like: ‘Flannel’. It’s written from the perspective of his step-father to him and for a second you get a kind of sweet and heartfelt moment that actually has some specifics that don’t feel either painfully undercooked or self-serving or just stupid, like how he’s getting high in a canoe on ‘Breeze Off The Pond’. And yet all throughout that song, the more prominent flannel that sprung to mind was that of Anthony Fantano, and the fact that a meme managed to overpower any resonance Timberlake was trying to sell is a bad sign for him going forward. And at the end of the day, if this record cut a third of its runtime and streamlined to focus on the acoustic groove-heavy sex jams – and maybe ‘Supplies’ too, if only for that concession to modern pop – instead of trying to make a significant statement, it’d probably hold together better. As it is… there are scattered moments on this project that click, but overall it’s a myopic, fragmented, bafflingly awkward project where Justin Timberlake proves that the harder you care about defining an idea of cool, on average the less cool you turn out to be, only saved by pretty damn solid grooves at its core. For me, 5/10, really just for hardcore fans at this point, but nowhere close to as bad as so many have claimed, and while I doubt that reception will puncture the unchallenged ego in Timberlake’s art, a slow fade towards the ground might just help in the long run.

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