Justin Timberlake’s turn to nature is less than inspiring.
Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods” is less a return to form and more a half-baked excuse to go on tour. Over an hour long, his most recent album is a meandering, overstuffed affair. Twelve songs break four minutes, but rarely justify their own length. Timberlake purloins country, blues, and rock-and-roll to season his typical pop-electronic fusion, but his stylistic experimentation doesn’t lead to sonic distinction. Instead, Timberlake’s voice seems buried by the lush, overproduced instrumentation.
The lyrics are equally distancing. Timberlake dives into a rural, homespun narrative with enthusiasm, singing stinkers like “Ain’t got no phone, don’t need it though,” and “I knew once I saw that fancy record company man/ And in her face, she knew I was a stan.” Timberlake’s “Flannel” is the most egregious offender, a mushy ode to love and sartorial choices that ends with a new-age mumble set by wife Jessica Biel about how “it’s in the earth.” Timberlake doesn’t deign to explain, and much of the album follows in the same fashion.
There are some highlights — “Midnight Summer Jam” sounds suspiciously like a “The 20/20 Experience” reject, as does “Breeze off the Pond.” But they don’t save the album, instead content to merely remind us of Timberlake’s more limber, better-received releases. Why listen to this piecemeal offering when you can revisit the classics? Why settle for “Breeze off the Pond” and its “sparkly waves”?
The stylistic mismatch is particularly grating on tracks like “Livin’ Off the Land,” which begins with a pan-flute paean to the wild and soon segues into “backed up bills on the credit card.” Timberlake’s woodsman affectation fits him poorly, in large part because he refuses to commit fully to the schtick. As such, “Man of the Woods” is often off-balance, meandering between spiritual platitudes and traditional rhythm and blues topics.
With interludes voiced by Biel and a song (“Young Man”) devoted to his young son, Timberlake bears little resemblance to the disaffected bachelor of “Cry Me a River.” But this apparent sincerity clashes with the inherent sappiness of lines like “Beautiful boy, got it from your momma/ Damn, she look good, you might get a sister.” Despite well-placed intentions, “Young Man” ends the album in a worse place than it began.
“Man of the Woods” is a smorgasbord of ideas, most of which don’t pass muster. It’s unwieldy and confused; the coherence of “FutureSex/LoveSounds” seems a property of the past.
Release Date: Feb. 2, 2018