When the trailer for Justin Timberlake’s fifth studio album, Man of the Woods, dropped two days into 2018, the internet let out a collective chuckle. JT wanted us to know he had been outside. He’d ventured out among mountains, trees, and campfires, wearing a massive blanket scarf and flannel; lots and lots of flannel, double flannel even. The consensus was that his new ‘man of the great outdoors’ image was blatantly inauthentic, the kind of basic that social media met with derisive one liners like, “Bringing Brokeback back” and “Listens to For Emma once.” If you’re expecting that Bon Iver’s intensely personal and intimate songwriting on For Emma, Forever Ago (written in a remote cabin in Wisconsin over four snowy months) might have had any influence here, it unfortunately has not.
The album teaser was a ridiculous move, but Justin Timberlake is a proper pop star, and all proper pop stars fully embrace being ridiculous. This is, after all, the man who was audacious enough to bring sexy back, who was bold enough to wear his hair in cornrows and went on a double denim red carpet date with Britney Spears. However, there is a difference to being in on the ridiculous and being ridiculed, and Man of the Woods leaves JT a sitting duck for ridicule.
The album’s first single, “Filthy,” landed with a near total disconnect to the promised “modern Americana with 808s.” Instead, the track’s bombastic womps and cheesy af references to “swagger” only feel like a rehash of “SexyBack,” cross-referenced with George Michael’s “Freak.” Meanwhile, the video is busy imagining a dystopian nightmare in which even robots are capable of gross misogyny. It was a misstep that burst JT’s authenticity bubble. “All my haters gonna say it’s fake” he hollers on the track, but it only seems fake because we were sold an authentic record about going outdoors and we’ve woken up in some kind of futuristic sexromp.
Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Danja are the triple threat behind the album. They’ve undeniably produced a slick and effortless sounding record that, technically speaking, is impeccable. What they haven’t done here is challenge Justin. Instead, their contributions sound as though they were heavily invested in the sounds and not the actual songs. Their past collaborations with Justin have been nothing short of iconic pop moments – let us just take a moment to properly reflect on their past glories: the shimmering triumph that is the mighty “Mirrors” or the ice cold kiss off that is “Cry Me a River.”
Previously Timberlake has confounded expectations, both in his solo work and even as far back as his boyband days as resident heartthrob in NSYNC. But Man of the Woods is stuck in the past; guilty of basically being a JT nostalgia-fest, a compilation of familiar and safe tracks that encompass all the stuff that the boys think you like Justin Timberlake doing. Pharrell is the worst offender here, just as he has done with his work on Gwen Stefani’s solo output (“Hollaback Girl” being the exception here, everything else being the rule), he proves that if depth and meaning are what you’re looking for, then all you’ll find is some seriously basey space beats.
There’s at least something to enjoy about Man of the Woods. Justin’s brand of neo-funk soul is deployed to full force on tracks like “Midnight Summer Jam.” Much of the album, like Montana’s disco funkiness, reminds us that JT’s primary objective is to make body music that demands you move (blessedly, the album pretty much shuns ballardry). Timberlake’s voice itself is still pure magic (he would like you to know that he produced all his own vocals on the record). His elegantly stacked falsetto ensures that he retains his crown as the prince of pop, even if some of these signature melodies are an already well-played trick. Like his 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, it runs the risk of feeling lackluster in real time.
Lyrically, Man of the Woods is a vacuous mess with about as much subtlety as a Katy Perry track. The sexually-charged imagery, like the line in “Filthy” that begs the question, “What you gonna do with all that meat?” (a less-than-subtle reference to his trouser snake reputation), will have you questioning whether someone apparently so genuinely sexy really needs to sing about it quite so incessantly. It’s as if he has forgotten to imbue these songs with any meaning or purpose. It’s all filler; the songwriting equivalent of wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a random number or the name of a city you’ve never been to, for no discernible reason. Even when attempts are made at genuine emotional expression, they are Hallmark-card caliber platitudes. “Flannel” is cringeworthy and overly-sentimental, while the advice he offers his son on “Young Man” boils down to a lot of empty talk about sitting down and standing up.
“I got rose-colored glasses,” Justin sings aptly on “Wave,” because not only is his brand of Americana void of authenticity, it’s also tone deaf to the state of the America it was made in. Even Lana Del Rey, through her self-indulgent romantic haze, managed to deliver an album of aware Americana, in which tracks like “Coachella,” “Get Free,” and “God Bless America” were in tune with the times. In JT’s defence, he isn’t the only pop star recently guilty of making an album that literally no one asked for. Lady Gaga’s country turn for Joanne and Katy Perry’s purposeful pop reinvention on Witness were also both genre-bending disasterpieces.
What makes Timberlake’s latest so painful is that it is done with such bravado, as if it wouldn’t be challenged; a fine example of white male privilege delivering mediocrity. For example, attempting to bolster the image that you’ve gone back to your Memphis roots by roping in a country heavyweight like Chris Stapleton on “Say Something” is heavy-handed at best. “Filthy” closes with a monologue asking us to “Look closer, through the trees, do you see it?” but by album’s end 66 minutes later, it’s clear there’s nothing to see here. It was all just smoke and no mirrors.
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- Words: Russell Dean Stone