Let’s start by establishing what Justin Timberlake’s new album isn’t. It’s not a country or folk album, though that sure seemed likely after that unintentionally hilarious trailer, full of shots of Timberlake really feeling nature. Nor is it a return to the cutting-edge R&B of his 2000s heyday, though his old co-conspirators the Neptunes and Timbaland are all over the record. It’s also not a socially conscious reinvention, dodging the clumsy “woke”-pop trend tripping up so many of his fellow superstars.
So what exactly is “Man of the Woods”? Timberlake has called it “Americana with 808s,” which here means swampy guitar licks and acoustic fingerpicking over unobtrusive Neptunes beats. Despite Chris Stapleton and Toby Keith’s participation, the gestures toward Timberlake’s Memphis roots are shallow and tentative: a harmonica solo here, a shout-out to flannel there. Vocally, Timberlake’s still working his boyish lover-man persona, and while that’s better than hearing him force a twang, it still feels like a tacit admission that none of this really plays to JT’s strengths. As a pop-R&B hitmaker, he could let his genius producers do the heavy lifting while getting by on showbiz-schooled charm, but the styles he dabbles in here aren’t as forgiving of average songwriting. When Timberlake does commit to his theme, the results are mixed; the Alicia Keys duet “Morning Light” nails its classic-soul vibe, but “Livin’ Off the Land” is an embarrassing pile-up of simple-country-folk clichés.
For a blockbuster pop album, “Man of the Woods” has some strange moments. The whooshing, robotic beat of “Filthy” sounds genuinely futuristic, even if it doesn’t quite work as a song, while on “Supplies” Timberlake tries to make prepping for the apocalypse sexy over sitar-esque strings and Pharrell’s mouth noises. Wife Jessica Biel pops up a few times, either to voice some mysterious wood spirit or to explain why she loves wearing Timberlake’s shirt. They’re deeply self-indulgent interludes, but they fit the record’s familial focus; naturally, there’s also a song dedicated to and featuring their son. In this context, “Say Something,” which concludes that “sometimes, the greatest way to say something/is to say nothing at all,” comes off as defensive, Timberlake justifying his decision to keep the album politics-free.
Timberlake used to exude likability, but recent PR misfires have made him an exemplar of bumbling celebrity privilege. “Man of the Woods” does nothing to counteract this image, with Timberlake sounding as out-of-touch with the modern pop landscape as he is with the culture at large. There are winning moments (“Montana,” “Higher, Higher”), but they’re too few and far between to dispel the fog of aimlessness hanging over the entire project. What could have been a bold genre experiment never quite fulfills its potential, and the old saying about what happens when you try to please everyone proves true yet again.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley