It has been nearly five years since Justin Timberlake unveiled his last album. So when the hitmaker promised to deliver his own twist on modern Americana on new LP, Man Of The Woods, anticipation was understandably sky-high. However, after a messy and ultimately misleading rollout, the project falls slightly short of his usual standard and lacks an obvious hit of the caliber of “Cry Me A River,” “My Love” or even “Can’t Stop The Feeling.”
Released two days after his 37th birthday and two days before he takes the stage to perform during the Super Bowl Half Time show Sunday (February 4), the LP comes at a transitional time. Now a father and husband, Justin switched things up to reflect his new point of view. Returning to his roots in Memphis, Tennessee, the album’s sound has been hotly contested since it was first announced. Based on the outdoorsy promotional pictures, it seemed his countrified era was upon us. Imagine our surprise when “Filthy” dropped.
After building anticipation with a slew of rapid-fire teasers, things got off to a jolting start with the release of his lead single. On it he reunites with Timbaland and Danja for a stomping, well-produced orgy and a futuristic video entirely at odds with the outdoorsy branding.
“Put your filthy hands all over me,” he lustily commands over growling bass and electric fuzz. Similar to “SexyBack” but not remotely as endearing, it made a quick appearance within the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 before dropping out of the top 40. The blaring release may have been the crooner’s first single in years, but it felt like too much of a gimmick to have staying power.
Thankfully his follow-up singles, “Supplies” and “Say Something,” were each a step in the right direction. The former is a searing mid-tempo and the first of nine productions The Neptunes contributed to the LP. Making use of slick R&B beats, the track presents the crooner as a knight in shining armor for a lover.
It may have been hot enough to find traction on radio, but it was not until Justin unveiled his third single that the alleged Americana influence became evident. Teaming up with Chris Stapleton, the soulful anthem incorporates growling bass and shimmering synths over full-bodied strings. Simply written and well performed, this remains a standout.
After the convoluted rollout, the remainder is a mixed bag of genre-hopping offerings. With the majority of production coming from familiar faces, Justin had the opportunity to work with a team capable of pushing him outside the box. And that is evident on the eclectic album. Comprised of a weighty 16 tracks, it offers more than an hour of listening. Some of it is excellent, but some is best forgotten.
Let’s start with the highlights. “Montana” and “Breeze Off The Pond” are some of the strongest cuts. The former is a blistering dance number with a vague disco influence while the latter feels the most sonically familiar to The 20/20 Experience. Comprised of cleverly layered vocal tracks, the smooth number provides a moment of easy listening and is a breath of fresh air placed toward the back end of the tracklist.
True ballads are few and far between on the collection, but “The Hard Stuff” is easily the best of the bunch. On it, the “Mirrors” singer longs for an authentic relationship with his partner and embraces hardship as a reality of a life well-lived. “I want the hard stuff. The kind that makes you real. I wanna be there when the storms come,” he vows.
In comparison, “Midnight Summer Jam” oozes seductive confidence. The track builds up to a funky vibe and is a revelrous ode to the south complete with a harmonica solo. “It’s just a midnight summer’s jam. The air’s so thin, but we don’t give a damn. The starry sky across the night, where we pretend it’s our last chance to dance,” he declares in a sweet falsetto over the swinging production.
But even a highlight is not without faults. Clocking in at over 5 minutes, the bloated run-time is more than a little grating. It would have been smart to avoid the urge to “start it over” around the 4-minute mark. Instead, the production lingers beyond its welcome.
Despite featuring the most eye-roll-inducing title of all time, “Livin’ Off the Land” is not all bad. “I’m just a man doing the best that I can. Saint or sinner, the loser can be a winner with a plan,” he croons over the unique mid-tempo that tries so hard to feel organic. With its funky electric strings, “Higher, Higher,” is even better though still a little forgettable.
Alicia Keys hops on the album for a jazz-tinged dose of Nashville on the besotted “Morning Light.” Featuring a strong vocal performance, it is another refreshingly endearing love song that avoids sounding contrived. “Cause I’m in love with you, laying here in the morning light. And all I want to do is hold you tight just one more night,” they croon on the chorus.
Here is where things start getting a little more unforgivable. Clumsy writing plagues cuts like “Sauce.” Following a plodding introduction, it builds to a crescendo as he awkwardly woos the love of his life. “I love your pink, you love my purple. You must be God herself, can I come worship,” he purrs in an attempt at seduction over the funky strings. That’ll be a pass, all things considered.
The album’s misguided title track feels like an even bigger miss. “I brag about you to anyone outside. But I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride. I’m sorry baby, you know I try. I’m a man of the woods it’s my pride,” he simpers before looking for makeup sex over a production that is both overly saccharine and ridiculously twangy.
Although clearly a labor of love, “Flannel” is equally insipid. Over a folksy instrumentation of acoustic strings and flute, JT offers his beloved one of his flannel shirts as a token of love. “Right behind my left pocket, that is where you’ll feel my soul,” he vows. All things considered, it may be for the best to ignore Jessica Biel’s feature on “Hers (interlude)” as well.
Similarly, “Young Man” has potential to be a heartwarming moment but verges on uncomfortable. Written as a love letter to his son, Silas, the track is again held back by weak writing. “Beautiful boy, got it from your mama. Damn, she look good, you might get a sister,” feels a little cringe-inducing when sung to a child. And I do not know where to start on his follow-up. “If you need to cry, you’ve got my permission.” Thanks, dad?
There is no denying that Man Of The Woods is an impressive undertaking. JT went out of his way to ensure the album transcended traditional concepts of genre. However, sometimes the end result does too much as evidenced by “Wave.” The song is defined by a messy production and doomed by its lack of a single enjoyable hook.
After such a lengthy absence from music, the former prince of pop took a risk on his return. Meandering but ambitious, Man Of The Woods is sometimes a brilliant body of work. When Justin gets it right on tracks like “The Hard Stuff” or “Breeze Off the Pond” the end result is magical. But when he misses the mark, which he does with too much frequency, it is sloppy and forgettable.