Justin Timberlake: Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake: Man of the Woods

Quite possibly the worst statement by a major pop star this decade.

Justin Timberlake: Man of the Woods

1.25 / 5

When Justin Timberlake unveiled his backing band the Tennessee Kids on the tour for The 20/20 Experience, he finally found the organic element that could consolidate the occasionally awkward split between the complex funk of Timbaland and Pharrell’s beats and his own occasionally stiff flow. With live horns and bass to loosen up the backing productions, Timberlake sounded more natural, finally at home in his sound rather than a clashing element. His classics sounded invigorated and perfected, while the uneven material from his then-new record snapped into focus. This new tweak left the impression that perhaps Timberlake’s best work was yet to come. Perhaps it still is, but his latest, Man of the Woods, is not merely his worst but quite possibly the worst statement by a major pop star this decade.

“Filthy” announces this debacle with a baffling arrangement that drops into bro-step wubs that were old-hat five years ago. Timberlake intones with a low-octave growl that sounds comical, like a child attempting to mimic a deep-voiced grown-up to scare someone away. “Haters gon’ say it’s fake,” he chants, though it would be impossible for anyone to find authenticity in this hollow pose. A similarly empty sentiment undermines “Sauce,” named for a sampled viral video of a Best Buy employee explaining the difference between “juice,” a fleetingly cool object, and the more-permanent “sauce.” It’s a funny video, in part because the zen koan espoused by the man is in service of selling some shitty TV with built-in obsolescence, and Timberlake appropriates it for a clumsy love song that stretches for four minutes yet has enough lyrics to power a single verse.

“Sauce” also sounds baffling, mixing heavy bashes of syncopated percussion with a guitar riff that sounds like countrified funk. Much ado was made over the country influence on the album prior to its release, to the extent that Timberlake had to insist this wasn’t a country record. He’s right, but there is an undeniable Southern influence, albeit one confusingly reduced to a vague notion of country crossed with a simplistic form of organic R&B that lacks the fire that the Tennessee Kids brought on tour. “Midnight Summer Jam” rides a trebly riff that sounds like a Bruno Mars tune justifiably left in the vault, a jam that never blossoms beyond its initial, skeletal beginning. The back-to-back faux-Americana of “Flannel” and rubbery cyber-funk of “Montana” show a range as wide as it is limited; on the former, soaring background effects lean too heavily on the warm acoustic ease of the composition to underscore its embodiment of laid-back happiness, while the latter reverses and uses strummed fills to offset the driving nightrun beat. The juxtaposition is interesting, but there’s none of the life that Timberlake found on the road.

Yet despite the scattered nature of the music, which suggests a conflict yet to be resolved, Timberlake’s lyrics take for their subject that most heart-stopping and anxiety-inducing of topics: contentment. Timberlake’s music has always rightly avoided broaching outright strife; a celebrity before he could drive, the artist wisely avoids intimation of hardship in favor of lusty dance music and a generally upbeat attitude. Here, however, there’s no driving purpose at all, only the calm reflections of a man happily married with a child. Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, recurs on the album, and their young son Silas appears on closing track “Young Man,” It’s unfair to rag on an artist for being in a good place in life, but like any performing art, music requires conflict of some kind, and there’s nothing on Man of the Woods to offset its placidity.

Ever since striking out on his own, Timberlake has treated his album running times like the bus in Speed, liable to explode if it dips below 60 minutes. Thus the fact that the new album is the singer’s second-shortest hardly means that he has trimmed any fat, and from the start the songs drag lugubriously. Combined with the lack of energy in the music and the vexing style mash-ups contained within, Man of the Woods is such a colossal misfire that it undoes years of work to establish its maker’s artistic clout. These sounds like the kind of album that tends to appear in parodies of pop star life, the ones so bad that they force the rest of the narrative to be an arc of redemption; only the lack of any offensive subject matter keeps the metaphor from tracking perfectly. There’s no telling if Timberlake will crawl back from this misfire, though if nothing else this ensures that his next album will by default have all the urgency so lacking here.

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