Review: With ‘Man of the Woods,’ Justin Timberlake fails to blaze a new path

What starts out here as a clear trail toward unbridled debauchery takes a weird turn to become a tangle of cringey genre criss-cross.

Justin Timberlakes Man of the Woods album cover.

Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods” album cover.

by Haley Bennett

“The 20/20 Experience” met rave reviews in 2013. Why? Who knows, given that Bruno Mars’ early stuff was more grown-up than Justin Timberlake’s awkward sonic assemblage. In “Man of the Woods,” JT starts to smooth out the kinks of that sound and adds quite a few more. 

The album opens with a promise — sliding, bouncy synth and lyrics that are, as per the first track’s title, “Filthy” — but just as soon begins to break that pact.

On “Midnight Summer Jam,” the album starts to wave its flannel: “Y’all can’t do better than this/Don’t act like the south ain’t the shit,” rings the chorus, a bizarre appeal to JT’s Tennessee roots, given that he has strived since the ’90s to sound metropolitan. Disingenuous as the country boy lyrics may be, this track has groove. It’d play well at a Daft Punk dance party.

The first three tracks are solid, funk-infused vapidity. They fling thinly cloaked innuendos in every direction in the careless way you’d expect from Mr. Wardrobe Malfunction himself.

And “Say Something” is still a bona fide jam.

Then, the album takes a turn toward the painfully earnest. “Hers (interlude)” where a breathy female voice — Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel — likens a soft flannel to her lover’s skin is followed by “Flannel,” sporting a chorus so wholesome it sounds as though he’s apologizing for the unabashed sex drive that the album opens with: “Right behind my left pocket/That is where you feel my soul/It’s been with me many winters/It will keep you warm.” 

Once you’ve gagged your way through that track (if you didn’t just skip to “Montana”), prepare to drag your feet through nearly ten minutes of midlife crisis. *NSYNC already happened. It’s not going to happen twice.

At the start of “Livin’ Off the Land,” an unpleasantly nasal voice advises us “you have to be comfortable with yourself because that’s all there is: there’s you and nature.” Another voice chimes in: “As soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, y’know, the wilderness will figure some way to teach you a lesson.” It’s hard not to picture two guys named Connor and Joey, bottles of dorm-brewed kombucha in hand, spending their spring break in the Rocky Mountains with $3,000 worth of gear from REI.

The misapplication of “Americana” here begs the question: What could Justin Timberlake possibly know about living off the land?

It’s as if by sliding the second half of the album in after a few strong tracks, JT’s producers figured we couldn’t sift the well-mixed throwback sounds from the cheap lyrical drivel that makes up the latter 30 minutes. “Man of the Woods” would be better off titled “Boy of the Woods,” given how fast it falls from flirtatious and fun into awkward and immature. 

Musically, “Man of the Woods” takes risks that pay off in the notes it hits. But the lyrics, which sound like an 18-year-old boy’s party boasts, grow old quickly. Here, JT proves that sometimes satire makes the most incisive observations; take, for instance, last week’s article from The Onion about how Timberlake is “Already Beneath U.S. Bank Stadium Waiting for Super Bowl Halftime Show to Start.”

The final verdict is up to you, but it’s possible that the best part of JT’s Minnesota performance could be his Target run.

Sonically, mashing up country music with a bass-heavy backbeat actually works here. EDM Appalachia isn’t a total catastrophe. But the album has some growing up to do before it’ll be ready to graduate into its own genre.

Letter grade: C-