If Justin Timberlake is now and forever a man of the woods, he should have stayed in the forest.
In his latest album, Man of the Woods, the pop megastar and Tennessee native, who’s loved by just about anyone alive since the late 1990s and who has managed to forget that he’s never apologized to Janet Jackson, pays homage to a nostalgic image of the Southern United States. This choice is ironic, given Timberlake’s long history of borrowing from the artistry of popular Black musicians in the R&B industry.
In this outing, vague country elements blend with monotone melody lines and dull pop beats to produce, well, not much of anything. Much as there is no point in considering each individual noodle in a homogenous bowl of ramen, analyzing specific tracks on Man of the Woods wouldn’t produce anything revelatory. It’s easier to evaluate the album as a whole.
The overall takeaways are pretty straightforward. One: Timberlake’s team doesn’t know how to write lyrics. Two: Timberlake’s team doesn’t know how to write melodies. Three: Timberlake should get a new team.
Think of it this way: If someone built a robot designed to sound like Timberlake and typed in a command to produce 16 country songs, that robot would produce Man of the Woods. People would immediately stop buying that robot; while it would be fairly convincing, it just wouldn’t be the same as listening to real Timberlake music.
If you loved the intricate layering and shimmery definitions of The 20/20 Experience, you will love to hate Man of the Woods. Even Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, is seductively laughing in the back of these lackadaisical tracks — that is, when she’s not delivering strange 61-second poetry interludes.
Plenty of critics have already come out slamming Timberlake for essentially phoning it in on Man of the Woods. It’s been said that the only one who seems more bored by the album than listeners is Timberlake himself.
Is he washed-up? Has settling into a family life killed his creative spark once and for all? It’s doubtful, but feels possible.
You could argue that it’s unfair — knowing that Timberlake is capable of so, so much better and holding it against him. Yet Timberlake singing “Filthy,” a pathetic “SexyBack” and ”Rock Your Body” combination-knock-off, is like an Olympic track runner taking an elevator up one flight of stairs.
For most of his career, Timberlake has been defined by his bold, theatrical, soul-infused pop. His music’s best quality was its innovation — though, as mentioned, it was innovation wholly dependent upon appropriation. His foray into the country genre doesn’t feel like an act of creativity as much as an “I mean, we’ve got nothing better to do” sentiment.
Even at his Super Bowl performance Sunday, he stuck to his old-school classics, opening with “Filthy” and then leaving Man of the Woods behind. Timberlake knew his album wasn’t going to rock any bodies.
Whether Timberlake acknowledges it or not, the success of his music almost always depends upon people’s desire to have sex to it. From “SexyBack” to “Cry Me a River,” Timberlake’s intricate and well-cultivated artistry has always been driven by a trademark sensuality. There’s only a dedicated few who might be interested in having sex to Man of the Woods — in fact, it’s more likely accompanied by a midromp halt and a “Hey, babe, can you put something else on?”
If you’re looking for a sliver of pleasurable listening on the album, you can pull up “Morning Light” and skip to exactly 1:14 into the song for a moment when Timberlake doesn’t sing at all, when we’re instead graced by the talent of Alicia Keys. “Morning Light” is by far the album’s most enjoyable song, with its gently rocking tune making Timberlake’s sluggishness feel less egregious.
While we could throw a bone in Timberlake’s way and applaud him for experimenting with a newer, more authentic direction, we won’t. Hopefully his next endeavor focuses less on forced Southern roots and more on bringing his sexy back.