music / Reviews

Justin Timberlake – Man Of The Woods Review

February 12, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Justin Timberlake - Man of the Woods
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
Justin Timberlake – Man Of The Woods Review  

1. Flithy
2. Midnight Summer Jam
3. Sauce
4. Man Of The Woods
5. Higher Higher
6. Wave
7. Supplies
8. Morning Light (feat. Alicia Keys)
9. Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton)
10. Here
11. Flannel
12. Montana
13. Breeze Of The Pond
14. Livin’ Off The Land
15. The Hard Stuff
16. Young Man

Justin Timberlake has been off the rails for longer than anyone cares to admit. His 2013 comeback, The 20/20 Experience, was not without its detractors, but with long-time collaborator Timbaland at his side, JT showed just enough ambition and panache to avoid any serious backlash. Few counted the two-part project as a misstep at the time, because the moments of genius (most notably “Mirrors”) overrode the record’s inherent unevenness and dated naffness (“Suit And Tie”). More importantly, Timberlake’s return was greeted with huge industry enthusiasm. Jay-Z was vouching for the popstar-turned-actor and the idea of an A-lister returning to the fold felt more important than a little self-indulgent hubris. JT was a made man.

Future Sex/Love Sounds was fresh in the memory, but no longer. A new generation of teenage popstars are rebelling against the Neptunes/Timbaland hegemony of the mid-2000s and finding inspiration in the softer, smeared sensuality of 90s R&B (i.e. the sounds JT and his ilk had so heartily rejected). The Timberlake who returns in 2017 doesn’t feel like an A-lister, nor is he an avant-garde auteur. 20/20 was bold, but not beloved and, as big as “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” proved to be, that single planted Timberlake in the middle of the road: as an a-sexual, anodyne, smiley faced chart topper – a peer of Meaghan Trainor rather than Miguel and Frank Ocean.

It’s worth dwelling on Timberlake’s public perception, because in a different climate Man Of The Woods is the sort of album that could be rationalised and defended. There is ambition and creativity to be found on this leaden record. In the right light – if you squint hard enough – these slabs of Americana infused funk might appear interesting and novel, rather than naff, hollow and saccharine.

Part of the problem is that Timberlake seems intent on having his cake and eating it too. He clings to the sleek, suited and booted sexuality of his youth so doggedly that it makes his embrace of settled romanticism seem entirely false. It might be easier to believe him when he sings, “success is cool, money is fine, but you’re special” on “Higher Higher”, if he’d only drop the soft shoed seduction of his “Senorita” days.

There is something powerful about the idea of pop’s arch seducer waving goodbye to his salad days and extoling the virtues of committed relationships (which, for the record, includes plenty of filthy fucking). Unfortunately, Timberlake refuses to embraces a stark sonic or tonal shift. He wants to be a southern revivalist, a heartfelt lover, a dead eyed dancefloor assassin, an alienating auteur and smiling American sweetheart all at once. The end result (as seen on “Wave” among many others) is horrendous amalgam of insipid sounds and vacuous sentiments. Truthfully, it would do Mary Shelley a disservice to call this stitched together hodgepodge a Frankenstein’s monster, because at least that soft-souled wretch had the capacity to shock and startle, Man Of The Woods fails even to do that much. It’s so assured and slick in its bad taste that it doesn’t even jar, instead it fails to land in its entirety.

Timberlake may forge a wish-mash of unwelcome hybrid sounds, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the production and tunefulness of this record is dazzling. It took an incredible amount of talent and thoughtfulness to create an album so insipid. Each composition is fascinating in its awkwardness. The Alicia Keys assisted “Morning Light” is a prime example. It is beautifully sung eternal love song that merges 90s So-Cal pop with sticky lingering soul, a bouncy Caribbean lilt, some Timbaland handclaps, the odd country lick and plenty of sun kissed lingering. No one particularly needed or wanted to hear that combination (and the end results is hardly thrilling), but it’s hard not be impressed by the technical feat of bringing those disparate influences together harmoniously (the project is eerily reminiscent of the genre hopping failed supergroup SuperHeavy).

The trouble is, no matter how difficult the task or delicate the result, music is not something experienced in the abstract. It doesn’t matter to the listener whether The Neptunes have closed their eyes, tied one hand behind their back and used their left hand, if, when all is said and done, they miss their mark. The bulk of the blame lies squarely at Justin Timberlake’s feet. His producers have made the impossible possible, these soul, pop, funk, country beats are workable, but JT simply fails to make his committed, loving relationship with Jessica Biel sound either sexy or fulfilling.

The worst offender, just pipping the nursery rhyme title track, is “Flannel”: an ungodly cloying attempt at Gospel inspired pop. Rather than making romance sexy (as Miguel did) or a rebellious and heroic act of passion and commitment (as Father John Misty has), Justin Timberlake (and Jessica Biel, who features heavily) make their relationship feel both boring and pretentious. This sin is worse than practically any other committed on Man Of The Woods. If you’re going to put your love front and center, there must be some sense of dynamism or engagement.

These professional, but limp compositions are infused with neither sweet sweat nor flithy fluids. While tracks like “Montana” fails to convey a depth of affection – it’s not an aspirational or heartwarming listen. There is no depth of detail or turn of phrase that brings the audience into the reality of the relationship. Everything is at arms length. Nothing feels real, precise, ugly or human. Truth be told, after hearing Man Of The Woods, I’m convinced Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake are living a mundane existence and having totally unremarkable sex (how on earth is that even possible!).

Despite featuring titles like “Breeze Off The Pond” and “Livin’ Off The Land”, Man Of The Woods is not evocative of place. Timberlake’s voice remains as silky smooth as ever and as a result his music seems to spring forth from an MTV era music video, the TRL studio or from the pages of Smash Hits magazine, rather than any real or authentic corner of the American expanse. “Livin’ Off The Land” is blighted by its production and overly cute rhyme scheme. It still comes closer than anything else to evoking a recognisably Southern aesthetic, but it still rings hollow, more of $20,000 wilderness experience than any kind of lived reality.

The scariest aspect of Man Of The Woods is that the end product is so clearly exactly what its chief architect desired to create. This is the album, the sound, the message that Justin Timberlake wanted to put out there, working alongside the people he loves and trusts the most. This is not a disaster of happenstance or circumstance (see Metallica and Lou Reed’s Lulu), this isn’t a classic pop implosion or an older artist desperately groping towards modernity (the sounds of youth that have passed him by). No, Man Of The Woods is the thoughtful work of a group of men who had a clear vision and an understanding of the sonics they were employing. This is the kind of whiff that makes you go back and question its creator’s on a fundamental level: their tastes and their ability to filter themselves. Pharrell and Timbaland might not be on the cutting edge in 2017, but they’ve more than proved themselves. Timberlake is another kettle of fish. This release made me question the value of his previous work (which I had given glowing reviews), luckily they still hold up, but the mere fact that I felt the need to check, should speak volumes about Man Of The Woods.

The final score: review Poor
The 411
Man Of The Woods is an incredible feat of production. The Neptunes, Timbland and Danja have successfully synthesised country, funk, soul, So Cal soft rock, 90s plastic pop and 00s Future Sex into one homogenous sound. It's an outstanding technical accomplishment that results in hideously anodyne music. As daring as the compositions may be, they are counterbalanced by Justin Timberlake's tedious self indulgence on an album lacking any sense of rootsy authenticity or steamy sensuality. Meant as a tribute to his wife and family, JT fails to make his love life with Jessica Biel feel warm, fulfilling, sexy or remotely interesting. The singing may be pitch perfect and the production exemplary, but this is a largely tasteless collection lacking edge, empathy and any semblance of reality. Missing the high watermark set for romantic love by the likes of Prince, Miguel and Father John Misty, the lingering question remains: who is this record for? (Okay, aside from Jessica Biel)

article topics :

Justin Timberlake, David Hayter