Man of the Woods
RCA Records · February 2, 2018
N*SYNC died for our sins. This isn’t what we deserve.
Justin Timberlake is a child actor turned boy band member turned international popstar turned… man of the woods? With his latest release, ‘Man of the Woods,’ Justin promised us all that he was going to go back to his “roots” and get personal. The album cover has a split image of him in a suit on the top half and in a flannel shirt with ripped jeans in the bottom half. Add a rustic, #deep album trailer and it looks like he’s ready for a Bon Iver-esque masterpiece after emerging from isolation in the woods for a month. But this is Justin Timberlake, not Justin Vernon. As much as he says he’s a man of the woods, he’s an ex-Disney kid trying to appear deep and innovative, and the result is not good.
The album begins with the line “If you know what’s good” repeated a few times. But does he actually know what’s good? The sound of the rest of the opening track ‘Filthy’ makes me think not. It starts out with a super dramatic guitar that makes it feel like there’s something big to come, but it fizzles out to a combination of terrible lyrics and an annoying “wub-wub” beat behind it. Great lines include: “Haters gonna say it’s fake, so real.” “Put your filthy hands all over me, you know this ain’t the clean version.” There are no profanities in the song, just some metaphors about meat.
After getting his racy song out of the way, Timberlake tries to transition to that real “Man of the Woods” vibe he promised with the previously mentioned trailer. Before getting into the details of some of the songs, it feels appropriate to point out that if you take away the Timberlake name the tracklist looks like a country album. Highlights include ‘Midnight Summer Jam,’ ‘Morning Light,’ ‘Flannel,’ ‘Montana,’ ‘Breeze Off the Pond,’ and my personal favorite, ‘Livin’ Off the Land.’ Many of the tracks seem out of place just based on their names. The actual music feels just the same. It’s full of stylistic and thematic inconsistencies.
‘Midnight Summer Jam’ sounds like any other bland pop song, but the lyrics really make it stand out. It opens with the iconic lyrics, “Y’all can’t do better than this, act like the south ain’t the shit.” I’ve never thought Justin Timberlake fans who love SexyBack (his peak) would be able to relate to Southern pride but I guess this is an audience shift. The next track, ‘Sauce,’ has a country-esque backing riff and genuinely uncomfortable sexual euphemisms. Will the food analogies ever end?
There’s a consistent problem throughout the album where subpar instrumentals and loud beats overpower his voice. When you’re as big of a celebrity as Justin Timberlake, this shouldn’t be an issue. But something clearly went wrong here. Poor songwriting mixed with poor production makes half the album unbearable to listen to. Even the shorter ones are painful. It’s really not possible to finish listening to some of them.
Speaking of unbearable to listen to, ‘Supplies’ is one of the lowest points of the album. A Spanish-inspired guitar backed by a trap beat and a beatboxer supplemented by auto-tuned lyrics about wanting to fly home to make his wife orgasm. Romantic! There’s also a wonderfully shallow music video about technology ruining the world, which has clearly never been done before (Banksy, is that you?). It’s a complete mess of a song that tries to appeal to multiple audiences but ends up alienating them all.
At some points it does feel like Justin is really trying. ‘Say Something’ with country singer Chris Stapleton is a genuine attempt at pop-country music. The chorus is all about being told to “say something,” which is exactly what I want him to do when I listen to this album. It’s painful to hear someone sing for over an hour and not say anything of any real importance. It felt like more of a Stapleton song than a Timberlake song. His attempt was greatly overpowered by someone who actually knows what they’re doing in the genre. The other guest feature with Alicia Keys on ‘Morning Light’ had a similar effect. She captured the song, and Timberlake just faded into the background.
Most of the songs on this album are genuinely hard to listen to. They either lost my attention or just annoyed me to a point where I had to turn it off. The overarching theme can best be summed up by one big question mark. Justin Timberlake made such a big deal out of trying to return to his roots, but all we got out of it was a combination of half-assed efforts in too many directions. After a Super Bowl performance that the majority of the arena didn’t really care for, it looks like his fame is faltering. It’s honestly a shame. His work has helped define pop music in the last decade, but he’s just lost that touch. I hope that he can actually try to say something with his platform and make music that’s not torturous to listen to in the future, but with so many talented and diverse artists out there it looks like his reign as a pop superstar is coming to an end.