Justin Timberlake stumbles through nature in ‘Man of the Woods’ album

With conflicting concepts and contradicting lyrics, Timberlake's attempt to combine "modern Americana with 808s" is a failed experiment.

With conflicting concepts and contradicting lyrics, Timberlake's attempt to combine "modern Americana with 808s" is a failed experiment.

Image By: Image courtesy of Complex

In the past, Justin Timberlake refused to make music with anything less than 100 percent. For Justified, he delved deep into traditional instrumentation and a capella-esque backing tracks. Then, he went all-in with each reprise and every interlude on FutureSex/LoveSounds. He turned up the neo soul in The 20/20 Experience, which contained so many long, elegantly produced songs that it took two parts to get everything released.

Now, with Man of the Woods, Timberlake seeks to combine modern Americana with 808s. If that sounds odd, it’s because it is. Man of the Woods is as unabashed as it is overblown and marks a new low in Timberlake’s musical career.

The first half of the album has almost every song that succeeds and these few danceable tunes prove the idea isn’t irreversibly bad, but overly done. Lead single “Filthy” opens the album, and its industrial sounds harken back to his iconic “SexyBack” from 2006. “Filthy” fails to match the soaring heights of “SexyBack,” but the next three tracks make Timberlake’s vision more clear for better and for worse.

“Midnight Summer Jam” follows “Filthy” and is one of the finer points of the album. The folky twangs in the guitar have a funk-driven rhythm, with violins chiming in over a bass guitar before a harmonica solo tries to take over the show. Timberlake’s triplet phrase “Y’all can’t do better than this/act like the South ain’t the shit” is the first overt evidence of his musical endeavor. He tries to channel his inner trap flow as he combines Southern bassline swagger with folk layers on top, which is adequately successful. Altogether, the song isn’t good, but it could be worse. The next track is “Sauce,” a down-and-dirty pop-blues hybrid that has Timberlake utilizing his wide vocal range to good effect. The lyrics are cheesy but it gets by on The Neptunes’ production. The same cannot be said for the rest of the album.

The title track “Man of the Woods” is where the album really begins to display its flaws. The opening lines “I brag about you to anyone outside/but I’m a man of the woods it’s my pride” indicate his attempt to immerse himself in nature and his Tennessee roots. Timberlake fails to convincingly portray himself as a man of the woods or musician who knows what is actually going on in his music. It’s a sad realization, but what will move you to tears is that “Man of the Woods” is the fourth song on an album with 16 tracks.

More often than not, each new song sounds like “Man of the Woods” — too long and too cheesy to listen to the entire thing. The bar set by “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Sauce” wasn’t even that high, yet only one other song comes close to their quality: the Chris Stapleton-collaboration, “Say Something,” which will be discussed shortly.

Timberlake’s strength has always been in the space between himself and the listener. His lyrics are always in the first-person and he has continually borrowed inspiration from his own life — his smash-hit “Mirrors” was inspired by his grandparents’ marriage, for example. However, his music is executed with such style that he balances generalities and personality better than most. He is just as vulnerable as he needs to be in order to convey conviction, but not much else, since his voice and his producers’ instrumentals do the rest of the work. His biggest hits are when he embraces confidence both lyrically and sonically, such as the snarky “What Goes Around… Comes Around.” With Man of the Woods, every attempt to keep this distance falls flat and every attempt to close this distance with insightful advice or personal experiences is half-formed and unoriginal.

“Say Something” is undoubtedly inspired by the harsh political climate; Stapleton and Timberlake want to say something so they sing, “I don’t wanna get caught up in the middle of it/but I can’t help myself, no, I can’t help myself.” Yet, as the song fades away, they conclude that “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” Are both statements applicable and have at least some truth to them? Sure! Will you finish the song wondering why they included both of these lines with no context in between? Yes, yes you will.

There is a lack of excitement ater “Say Something” as Timberlake, Timbaland and The Neptunes confuse different with innovative and fusion with quality. As an ode to Southern music, the album is almost an accidental homage to the musical landscape of America. Between the funk, the folk, the disco and the R&B, Timberlake has bitten off way more than he can chew. In the end, he tries to spit his music out like tobacco only for it to fall to the ground in a heaping mess. “Flannel” is a low point, with the line “May we live for many winters/keepin’ eachother warm” showcasing how thin Timberlake’s plaid really is. The last two tracks are even more lyrically cringeworthy than “Say Something.” The melodies are just as bland as the concept of modern Americana and 808s continues to deflate.

There are some bright spots, even if they are often matched by dimness in the same song: “Montana” pulses with energy but the lyrics are uninteresting. “Morning Light” has a good Alicia Keys feature and it provides a last shimmer of hope next to “Say Something” before the album really starts to disintegrate.

With The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake aimed high and part one of the album was everything we could have asked for after waiting seven long years for Timberlake’s return. The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2 showed the exhaust of his new sound. After another five long years, a drastic sound reinvention was necessary to move on from part two’s disappointment and Man of the Woods could have been that amazing reemergence for a musical star who loves to try new things. Unfortunately, it’s not even close.

Final Grade: C-

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