Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods
At 37, Justin Timberlake has decidedly transitioned into the fourth phase of his career. In the first, he was the star of a boy band that released three blockbuster albums. In the second, he established himself as a bonafide popstar, paving the way for any former boy band member to solo success. In the third, he focused on acting and being immature with Jimmy Fallon, punctuated with a two-part album in 2013, The 20/20 Experience.
And now, in the fourth, Timberlake is the superstar who remains essential to the music industry even when he’s not making music. He has settled into marriage and fatherhood, with no need or desire to do what anyone else is doing, or to do something novel. That could not be more clear on his new album, Man of the Woods.
After a rootsy album commercial that turned out to be more of a red herring than a preview, the album is a retread of old ideas and an attempt to use those old ideas to create something new. Working with familiar collaborators like Timbaland, The Neptunes, and Danja, Timberlake dabbles in a plethora of styles and genres, from the familiar soul and R&B to hints of funk, folk, and country. The production is slick and polished, sometimes too much so that Timberlake often recedes into the background of his songs, no longer the star or the main attraction.
On lead single “Filthy,” the robo-funk beats and layered vocal effects drown out Timberlake’s voice, which doesn’t have much to say in the first place. “Midnight Summer Jam” is filled with throwaway platitudes about having fun in the South and the far more interesting combination of violin, guitar, and harmonica, but overstays its welcome, reminiscent of The 20/20 Experience’s bloated track times.
“Sauce” and “Wave” both are let down by hollow lyrics like “I love your pink, you like my purple” and “I got a couple fish then we can dine,” while the former is saved by a catchy melody and blaring electric guitar and the latter is a complete misstep with no hook to speak of.
Man of the Woods hits its stride with the title track, with Timberlake being both effortlessly cool and convincingly earnest. The soft percussive hip-hop beat allows his voice to shine, both in his lower register and in falsetto.
Both collaborations on the album, with Alicia Keys and Chris Stapleton on “Morning Light” and “Say Something” respectively, are standouts. On “Morning Light,” we find Timberlake at his most intimate, singing of long-term love with Keys. The old-school soul and the slow, saccharine melody do their job, imposing images of lazy Sunday mornings in bed. The song also has my favorite line on the album, the cheesy but honest “In the whole wide world of guys/I must be the luckiest alive.”
Stapleton is an expected guest, after his and Timberlake’s show stopping performance at the 2015 CMA Awards, which started talk of Timberlake’s possible shift to country. “Say Something” will get play on both pop and country radio, and is one of the best songs on the album. The acoustic guitars and electronic beats are an interesting mix that makes the song simultaneously rustic and modern.
The album ends strong, with “The Hard Stuff,” co-penned by Stapleton; and “Young Man,” featuring Timberlake’s wife and son. “The Hard Stuff” continues the theme of marriage that permeates throughout the album. It’s soft and mellow, and benefits from being the shortest track on the album at 3:15. “Young Man” ties the album together, a sentimental declaration of love for his son. Timberlake’s first album since his son’s birth, the title of Man of the Woods is derived from his name, Silas, which means “of the forest.” Unlike many of the songs on the album, “Young Man” has something definite to say.
Man of the Woods is an intriguing mess by a musician known for his slick, assured style. By forgoing a specific genre and borrowing from many influences from the past, Timberlake isn’t interested in creating and shaping the pop music of 2018. And in the end, that’s okay.