This is not the folktronica reinvention we were promised. Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods was hyped to sound like it was his 22, A Million. To be fair, this was all speculation; all we had confirmed was that this was going to be a return to Timberlake’s Tennessee roots. In a sense, it succeeds. JT has gone bro-country; save for some of the extra synth’s thrown in. Man of the Woods is an earnest attempt at artistry, but it sees Timberlake slouching into his iconic status.Similar to The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake aims more for ambition than he had on albums like Future Sex/Love Sounds. This is Timberlake’s second try at a mature album. There’s a heavy focus on more adult themes and elegiac lyrics. When Timberlake manages to tag the bases, the album is really enjoyable. The Chris Stapleton collaboration “Say Something” is easily the most enjoyable moment on the album, and it perfectly sums up what this is trying to be: a calculated album adored by critics and loved by mainstream audiences. It’s the most focused moment on the album, because it seems like they’re trying to make an extraordinary crossover hit.
It’s unsurprising that “Say Something” wasn’t the first single, but it is shocking that it wasn’t the second, because the first two singles from Man of the Woods are so eccentric. “Filthy” is absolutely nuts, but it stays within Timberlake’s shed. It’s a funky, sexy jam that reasserts Justin’s coolness. It’s the musical equivalent of showing up to a college bar in a suit and ordering a scotch on the rocks. It also played into the folktronica rumors, plus Timberlake’s fondness for classic rock. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a sleeper hit, due to its odd quote-ability. That being said, “Supplies” represents most of the album’s problems. It’s a pop record trying to smoothly transition to country. “Supplies” is a trap song with some acoustic guitar chucked in for seemingly no reason. The album is mostly filled with that confusion.
That’s where the album ends up spiraling into mediocrity. Timberlake adds acoustic guitar to every song, even where it doesn’t fit, like the smooth R&B cut “Montana.” This song would’ve been a near perfect Drake rip-off, but I can’t take my ears off the single acoustic guitar strums every few beats. Also, Timberlake’s vague woodsy Walden-isms are so painfully forced it’s hilarious. “Living off the Land” is the most noteworthy of these faux-elegiac tracks. Even one of the album’s better cuts is ruined by having the title “Flannel.” Seriously?
Man of the Woods’ best moments sound like Timberlake is just sitting around with some friends, jamming on a frosty winter morning or a Saturday night in the summer. The title track is the first example of this and one of the album’s catchiest songs. “Morning Light” with Alicia Keys probably sums this up the best though, due to the fact that there are seemingly improvised guitar textures and Keys and Timberlake just riff at moments. Still, the closing two tracks are the most memorable. “The Hard Stuff” is a love song in the same vein as John Legend’s “All of Me.” Timberlake relishes in not just the sweet, easy parts of a relationship; he “wants the hard stuff.” “Young Man” is the most touching though. It’s a sweet soul number for Timberlake’s son, where he talks about both being strong and vulnerable. “If you need to cry, you’ve got my permission/You can do anything in the world if you listen.” Between soulful tone and the sounds of Timberlake’s infant son, it’s hard not to enjoy.
Chris Stapleton collaborations and all, it won’t be shocking if Timberlake’s next album is a straight country record. Timberlake shows he has the potential for it, but we needed this album to get there. It’s not as ambitious as 22, A Million or as genuinely good as For Emma, Forever Ago, but it’s fine. It was silly to think Timberlake was going to reinvent himself as a Midwest genius, but he proved that the kid can jam.