There are albums that have a cohesive sound even when they deviate slightly from their tone. Then, there are carefully constructed concept albums that tell a beautiful story or have a thesis worth noting, each song adding to its narrative. Justin Timberlake’s ‘Man of The Woods’ is neither of those. Instead, it is an endeavor that sits on the fence—too afraid to go all in on one side or another.
After releasing a promo video leading fans to believe that it would a surprising shift to a modern, pop-infused country sound, what we get instead is a mixed bag of Timberlake attempts. This pursuit ultimately confuses the listener and lands on its head.
Take the opening track ‘Filthy’ for example. It’s a Timbaland produced banger that gives the absolute wrong impression of the following 15 tracks you’re about to hear. It’s as if you went out expecting a nightclub, but instead got a dive bar, that also happens to serve southern BBQ—in Chicago. Yes, it is a reach of a metaphor, but listen to the album all the way through, and you’ll get it.
Beyond ‘Filthy’ and ‘Sauce’, there is a standout Timbaland production to find in “Say Something,” which features Timberlake’s new best friend Chris Stapleton. But even then, lyrically it is uninspired, and it never fully realizes Stapleton’s vocal bravado.
So where is the pivot to being a backwoods man from Tennessee? Well, you can find the twangy, southern attempts in the tracks ‘Man of the Woods’, ‘The Hard Stuff’ and ‘Flannel’, the latter of which has an old-timey polish that evokes a holiday feel. These are three of the better turns toward a fresh Timberlake sound, but that is still not saying much.
Most of the album is produced by The Neptunes, the dynamic duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo that helped with Timberlake’s breakthrough album “Justified.” Whereas ‘Like I Love You’ and ‘Cry Me a River’ are absolute classics, none of the Neptunes songs on this album reach their level.
Classic Timberlake can be found here though. ‘Midnight Summer Jam,’ ‘Montana’, and the soulfully produced ‘Morning Light’ ft. Alicia Keys are all perfect examples of why people love Justin in the first place. ‘Morning Light’ is arguably the best slow jam of the entire offering. Keys and Timberlake synergize extremely well and leave fans hoping for future collaborations.
Pair this song with ‘Young Man,’ a progressive, positive message to his son, and you start getting a feel of what this album could have been. But these two songs are far from the overall feeling of the album and can’t carry it on their backs.
Justin kept telling fans this would be his most “personal” album yet. Unfortunately, you’ll find it difficult to figure out why. Sentimental lyrics? Sound bites from his wife? Creative decision making? There isn’t a clear answer to be found, and that ultimately hurts it.
Gone are the days of ‘The 20/20 Experience’, its shadow hardly apparent on ‘Man of the Woods’. Timberlake is past his peak, but what more does he have to strive for other than pushing his musical experimentation in a new direction? Unfortunately, he is too erratic here, and what we end up with is a grab bag of songs that may work as decent singles but don’t mesh to create a complete presentation.
Sorry to say, Justin, if you’re trying to get us to believe that you are truly a “Man of the Woods,” you definitely missed the target. This album is the vocal equivalent of glamping, and it will be hard to convince anyone otherwise.
‘Man of the Woods’ is out now via RCA Records. The albums full track listing is…
- Midnight Summer Jam
- Man of the Woods
- Higher Higher
- Morning Light
- Say Something
- Hers (Interlude)
- Breeze Off the Pond
- Livin’ Off the Land
- The Hard Stuff
- Young Man