Review: Justin Timberlake Heads for the Country (Sort of) on ‘Man of the Woods’
Our take on the pop icon’s funky, often weird new LP, which includes some of his most exploratory, genre-defiant music in years
On his fifth album, Justin Timberlake continues to stay dedicated to Timbaland/Neptunes futuresex beats and his familiar lovesound come-ons that have made him the biggest male pop star of his generation. But, as its title implies, much of Man of the Woods also comes with the moonshine-and-mason-jar glisten of country, blues and folk. You might expect a smooth guy like JT to use this backdrop for a pickup-truck cruise across the Florida-Georgia line. Instead, he has something more timely in mind for our new dark age: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Justin Timberlake wants to have you naked for the apocalypse.
To Timberlake, “rustic” means “survivalist,” as opposed to “downhome,” and he sounds like he has the warmest, coziest doomsday bunker on the prairie. “Some shit’s ’bout to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head,” he croons in “Supplies,” a song where he compares his love to light, firewood and emergency generators. “The world could end now, baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead.”
A happy husband and—as of 2015—a proud papa, Timberlake moves from lothario to white knight, trades his suit and tie for some overalls, and sings about Ron Swansonian ideals like protection, pride and elbow grease. “Livin’ Off the Land,” which starts by sampling a commercial for the History Channel wilderness survival showMountain Men, mixes stuttering beats with strummed guitars for a working man’s lament about paying off credit card debt to save your relationship. The whining steel guitar and cavernous 808s of the minimalist title track offer a country-rap whisper somewhere between Sturgill Simpson and Ying Yang Twinz. “The Hard Stuff” would be a straight “for better or worse” country radio ballad with Timberlake promising “I’ll be there when the storm comes” if not for its electronic wagon-wheel beat.
Wife Jessica Biel stops by to wax romantic about wearing her hubby’s shirt (“It makes me feel like a woman, it makes me feel sexy it makes me feel … it makes me feel like I’m his”) before the log cabin cuddle “Flannel.” There, Timberlake sings “It’s been with me many winters, it will keep you warm” on a song that sounds like Fleet Foxes’ indie-folk swoon “White Winter Hymnal” with a drum machine. Shortly after Timberlake began dating actress Biel in 2007, that band of indie beardos broke out, and it’s hard not to hear Timberlake similarly seeing love with the same calm, paternal, somewhat retrograde tone of the Fleet Foxes, who once sang “Your protector’s coming home, coming home.”
Man of the Woods takes a while to settle into a rural core. Most of the album’s first half is cosmopolitan future-funk of the highest caliber. It’s hard to call opening track “Filthy” “pop” since the production is so avant-garde. Timbaland and Danja conjure a testosterone electronic chainsaw grind and match it with vintage Larry Graham-style slap bass: The fact that the two musical elements don’t exactly match groovewise creates a beautiful and disorienting tension unlike anything on the radio. “Midnight Summer Jam” is like an update of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” where the hooks are more wine-splashed than sugar-coated. “Sauce” sounds like Primus doing War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” – the Chili Peppers need to cover it on their next tour.
All that’s really missing from this part of the LP is Justin Timberlake the pop icon. Instead, JT the co-producer seems more than happy to playing giddy cheerleader and hypeman to these wild beats – adding lines like “Act like the South ain’t the shit!” and “Go ahead, say I won’t!” and “I don’t like it, I love it!” – with his voice pushed a little to the background with no giant hooks to speak of. Some would consider this a waste of one of pop’s greatest showmen, but free your mind and let your ass follow: These are some uptown-funky jams, rare in the hot minute since pop turned narcotic and club-centric.
Of course, by playing so fast and loose with genre, Timberlake fails to see the forest for the trees. Man of the Woods is easily the least cohesive listen from the man who gave us a post-millennial robo-Thriller (2002’sJustified), an EDM-anticipating collection of extended art-pop (2006’sFuturesex/Lovesounds) and two discs of impossibly bloated yet stylistically confident grooves (2013’s 20/20 Experience). Here, Timberlake freely switches between the autobahn and the dirt road, and it’s hard to follow him down every detour. The windswept rural titles of “Montana” and “Breeze Off the Pond” belie the fact that they are basically weakened, post-Weeknd retro-pop. A soulful duet with Alicia Keys that recalls fellow Memphis soul man Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” is nice but inconsequential. On “Waves” he takes a flight to an island and it’s hard to even tell what the cheap-sounding guitars are supposed to evoke. Even standout “Man of the Woods,” gorgeously matching back-porch croon with hip-hop boom, feels a little off when he goes full Trey Songz (“But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs/Hey, there’s the faucet”).
Still, parts of Man of the Woods are his most exploratory music in years, whether it’s the skippy, juddering avant-funk or making meaningful modern countrypolitan without sounding like a disco ball in a Solo cup. It’s not perfect, but you can’t raise a barn without getting your hands dirty.