This isn’t as bad as the first two singles have led us to believe or as some have reported, but it’s also not very good. People like picking on easy targets, and there hasn’t been an easier target than an ex-boy band baby-faced attempt at being rugged with an album title like Man of the Woods and song titles like “Flannel” and “Livin’ Off the Land” even though those were feints in retrospect.
Hard to think of a better solo career in recent memory than Justin Timberlake’s, even though he’s only released three albums before this one. (I’m going to pretend that his team didn’t push The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 as its own experience and fourth studio album but rather the collection of throwaways that it clearly is.) I guess most people don’t wanna admit that because he’s so slow at releasing albums, even though they’re happy Rihanna slowed down a bit. The singles from debut album Justified remain some of the best pop songs from the first half of the decade and deserve all the nostalgia at house parties, throwback clubs, and karaoke private rooms. I mean, name an intro that sets the melodramatic stage better than the rainy backdrop to the organ line and Gregorian chant of Timbaland’s “Cry Me a River”, or the Michael Jackson tribute that turns out to be better than most Michael Jackson songs that is “Rock Your Body.” And yeah, I’d rather hear “Hey Ya!” nine times out of ten, but “Señorita” did the thing of addressing everyone in the room one year prior.
Whereas the Neptunes produced most of Justified, Timbaland is responsible for helming most of FutureSex/LoveSounds (and often achieving the future-portion promise of its title) and The 20/20 Experience. It’s hard to think of many albums from 2013 or comebacks in general — regardless of genre — that can compete with the latter. At 70 minutes, it was long, yes, but it was also ambitious in scope, from the cinematic “Pusher Love Girl” to the rhythmic drive of “Let the Groove Get In” to the ambient closer of “Blue Ocean Floor.”
By contrast, the Neptunes produces the majority of Man of the Woods, and Justin Timberlake’s vision shifts from the futuristic FutureSex/LoveSounds and sweeping The 20/20 Experience into something more familiar: Prince-like jam (“Filthy”, “Midnight Summer Jam”) or going back to American roots (“Say Something”; “Flannel”). To help achieve the latter, Timberlake enlists the help of Chris Stapleton coming off his productive year (if only Stapleton had released three albums in 2017, he’d be in the same debates as Brockhampton and King Gizzard!).
The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis writes that “the kind of R&B in which Timbaland and the Neptunes specialize is boldly futuristic, while the country and southern rock Timberlake wants to evoke is entirely traditional. Melding the two is a tough call, and the finished product is of decidedly mixed quality,” which is fair, but these tracks turn out to be some of the album’s highlights: the Stapleton-aided “Say Something” knows exactly why it succeeds (the somewhat cheesy bit after the first chorus where everything drops out so the two can sing “there’s me-lo-dy and har-mo-ny”).
Why Man of the Woods is a disappointment is simpler: some songs suck. There’s the complete non-event of the lead single and album opener “Filthy”. There’s “Supplies”, which sports one of the worst hooks I’ve heard in a long time and it was released as the album’s second fucking single. There’s the unintentionally cheesy interlude “Hers” which features wife Jessica Biel saying the lines “the little holes and tears and shreds on [his shirt] are, are, are the, the memories of the past that I wasn't there for, but, that somehow I, I, I feel like I understand more when it's against my skin” which makes previous eye-rollers like “Stop! Let me get a look good at it / So thick…now I know why they call it a fatty, OW!” look good by comparison. There’s the closer “Young Man” that’s maybe inspired by songs by Jay-Z and Beyonce that feature their child that’s touching only if you’re listening to it as an 8-year old Silas Timberlake.
Actually, on an album with production as often nondescript as this, “Supplies” turns out to be one of the biggest disappointments because it might be the album’s most interesting production, with a mandolin providing the backdrop to a zombie apocalypse. But then, you know, there’s that Walking Dead-referencing pre-chorus and that aforementioned hook and Timberlake congratulating himself for his ability to make you cum mul-ti-ple tiiiiiimes! It’s hard to adequately comment on how badly the song nosedives.
It’s too easy to say that a 40-minute, 11-track album would’ve been a vast improvement, but even a modified version of Man of the Woods doesn’t hold a candle to Timberlake’s previous albums because the highlights aren’t as colorful as we’ve come to expect from Timbaland or the Neptunes, or as tuneful as we’ve come to expect from Justin Timberlake. It’s hard to imagine myself missing any of these songs if I don’t hear them ever again, including the Alicia Keys-featured “Morning Light” (one of the more melodic cuts) or the prickly guitar/bass ride of “Wave” (courtesy of Raphael Saadiq, though Pharrell repeating “wave” as often as he does makes the song grow dull) or the rhythm-propelled “Montana” (solid, but emblematic of what I said earlier about non-descript production). Add this to Taylor Swift’s recent Reputation as a surprisingly unhandsome contribution from a great pop star. C PLUS