Album Review: Justin Timberlake - Man of The Woods

Is Man of The Woods, the new album from pop provocateur Justin Timberlake, just an advertisement for his halftime show during this year’s Super Bowl? Or—is his performance during halftime just an advertisement for his new album?

Or are they one in the same?

It’s a question to consider, given the fact that his last album, 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, was more or less, put together and released as contractual obligation to AEG Live.

Justin Timberlake was always going to be the breakout star of N’SYNC; the one with the curly mane of blonde hair and sparkling eyes who sang lead on so many of their most successful singles; the one who famously had Britney Spears by his side for a number of years; the first one to go solo after N’SYNC disbanded shortly after the 2000’s started.

Justified, his first solo outing, contained massive and impressive pop hits—“Like I Love You” featured a young Pusha T and Malice with startling guest verses, and Timberlake himself, along with producer Pharrell Williams, somehow, managed to slip in an incredibly sly oral sex reference; while the embittered “Cry Me A River” slithered along thanks to Timbaland’s bombastic production aesthetic.

Timberlake, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to just be a ‘pop star.’ He wanted to be taken seriously as an artist with a capital A—enter the bizarro pop of 2006’s Future Sex/Love Sounds and the brash electro-scuzz of “Sexyback.”

And, even if they were recorded as contractual obligations, The 20/20 Experience—both parts one and two—contained moments that were genuinely admirable, including the first half of the triumphant “Mirrors,” and “Not A Bad Thing,” which was one of my favorite songs of 2013.

Timberlake took over six years away from music to focus on acting; he was quoted as saying that, at that time, music wasn’t where his heart was. However, when AEG Live gives you, like, $20 million dollars and they haven’t seen a return on that investment—your heart can suddenly find itself in all kinds of places. Like a recording studio, for example.

Man of The Woods was announced through a series of promotional videos teasing music from the record, as well as photographs—all of which found Timberlake in various outdoor settings, wearing myriad outdoorsy outfits and apparel.

The internet, of course, reacted accordingly—the best response was simply ‘listens to Bon Iver once.’

However, Timberlake didn’t take a four-track recorder and an acoustic guitar into a cabin deep in the woods—which is a shame. If he had done that, Man of The Woods would have been a far more interesting and palatable listening experience. No, despite his sudden Eddie Bauer/REI aesthetic, and with song titles like “Flannel” and “Livin’ Off The Land,” this is, for better or for worse, this is a pop album. Sure, it touches on ideas of spirituality and family—but it’s a pop album, nothing more, nothing less.

 Man of The Woods is long and bloated—66 minutes in length, it boasts 16 tracks—15 songs, one interlude featuring Timberlake’s wife Jessica Biel (more on this later)—it’s the kind of effort that could have really benefited from some self-editing as far as if all of these songs absolutely needed to be on here.

 And, hey, so look—like, we all want to ‘get our money’s worth’ out of an album, or whatever. I get that. I get the disappointment when you get a new album it barely cracks a half hour. But this is, like, self-indulgently long—a trait that The 20/20 Experience also suffered from. While both of those records were 10 songs each, almost every song on the first disc (and a number from the second as well) were all roughly double the length they should have been.

The album opens up with the first single, “Filthy;” musically, the song is a slight call back to the electro scuzz of Timberlake’s Future Sex days. However, it, like almost every track on Man of The Woods, is damn near directionless and completely uninspired, lacking any real enthusiasm that would make one stand out as better from the other.

The problem with “Filthy” is that it’s, like, barely a song. There are no verses—just long stretches of refrains and choruses that really lead to nothing. The opening is obnoxious in its bombast, with Timberlake caterwauling “If you know what’s good!” before it slithers into a metallic, wonky groove. “Put your filthy hands on me,” he commands someone (presumably his wife?) before assuring us that this isn’t the “clean version.”

“Filthy” isn’t a bait and switch, per se—the watered down Future Sex electro-slink confused people when this was released as a single because it was a strange contrast to the name of the album as well as well as Timberlake’s ‘listens to Bon Iver once’ aesthetic. There’s nothing else on Man of The Woods that sound quite like this, so yes, in that sense, this was a bit of a misleading first single.

However, it doesn’t get any better than this. It only gets worse, so in that sense, it sets the tone for the record.

The misfires are unrelenting, so it’s tough to even know where to begin. I mean, there’s the terribly insincere trap-style delivery to Timberlake’s lyrics on “Midnight Summer Jam”—or do you jut want to talk about how flat out terrible Timberlake is as a lyricist?

I guess I don’t know why I should expect anything more or better from him. He is a pop star, and he’s been known to have a few questionable lyrics in the past, but here, it’s just a non-stop cavalcade of cringe inducing lines like, “I love your pink, you like my purple” or “I’ll be the generator, turn me on when you need electricity.”

And I mean, these are just some of the moderately misogynistic ones; the album is littered with awful, thoughtless clichés.

There is, also, the curious case of the insipid introduction to “Flannel,” featuring a short snippet of dialogue spoken by Jessica Biel. “When I wear his shirt, it feels like, like his skin over mine,” she coos. “And the little holes and tears and shreds on it are, are, are the, the memories of the past that I wasn't there for, but, that somehow, I feel like I understand more when it's against my skin.”

Some may find this romantic, however, the Wikipedia entry for Man of The Woods cites Timberlake as the sole writer of this, and that he simply recorded Biel’s reading of it onto his phone. For me, this doesn’t sit well. There’s something incredibly forced and disingenuous about this, and the way it’s presented within the context of the album.

Musically, a bulk of Man of The Woods reunites Timberlake with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—both of whom he was legally prevented from working with due to a long gestating dispute with his former label, Jive Records. Williams and Hugo, working as The Neptunes, are responsible for some of the most iconic contemporary popular music of the last 15 years, but here—there’s rarely anything special happening at all—only the late arriving “Montana,” is moderately interesting musically speaking. The rest of the record lifelessly hobbles along, coasting on expensive sounding production values and relying heavily on Timberlake’s charisma to make it through.

Timberlake has been quick to dispel the idea that this is a country album. Even with the appearance of contemporary country crooner Chris Stapleton, this is far from what I consider to be ‘country music.’ But I know the definition of that has changed over time. Timberlake calls Man of The Woods ‘Americana with 808s.’ I guess I wouldn’t even go that far, since that sounds like it could result in something worth listening to.

This, however, winds up being a slick sounding pop record with a bit of Southern twang and acoustic guitars thrown in. It’s a little smarter than all of the ‘bro country’ music that has taken over, but not by much.

I can’t say that Man of The Woods is the kind of album that buckles under its own ambition because it simply has none. It’s directionless, and it seems to be completely okay with that. Something like this isn’t a career killer for Timberlake, though it isn’t exactly as memorable or as exciting as other things he’s been responsible for. And, as the Pitchfork review points out, literally nothing can end Timberlake’s career; his involvement in the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show got him an invitation back this year, while Janet Jackson’s career has, for the most part, come to an end because of that.

It may not be a career killer, but, much like Taylor Swift’s latest and perplexing record, or even, to some extent, Kanye West’s baffling The Life of Pablo; this is the kind of big name release that is overconfident in its content, and isn’t aimed at curating new fans or listeners.

It’s easy to write 1,400 words of vitriol about this record, but I could have gone for a quick and easy joke—the opening of “Filthy” involves Timberlake shouting, “If you know what’s good!,” to which my instinct is to respond, “NOT THIS ALBUM.” On “Midnight Summer Jam,” he stutters, “Y’all can’t do better than this.”

Maybe he can’t. But someone certainly can.

In the end, maybe Man of The Woods isn’t an advertisement for Timberlake’s halftime show, and maybe the halftime show isn’t an advertisement for this record. Maybe all of it is just an advertisement for Justin Timberlake himself—as a persona, or a brand. The affable, goofy former teen star who grew up, pals around with Jimmy Fallon, and flashes his shit eating grin on “Saturday Night Live.” Man of The Woods is less about an actual person, and more about pushing a product, a brand, and façade of an individual.