In the opening song to Man of the Woods, Justin Timberlake sings ‘Haters gonna say it’s fake’. It’s unclear exactly what those haters discussed on the track Filthy will claim is fake, and the more Timberlake sings it across the metallic screeches that make up most of the song, the more confused the listener becomes. When the album was announced, accompanied by a pseudo-artsy video showing Timberlake at one with nature, most of us wondered what this debut track had to do with the conceit. Why would you make a music video with a dancing robot when your album cover suggests a Bon Iver tribute act? These are but a handful of questions that Man of the Woods inspires in the bemused listener. If you’re looking for answers in this incoherent album, you’ll find your search to be futile, because it seems that Timberlake himself has no idea who he is right now.
Following an underwhelming Super Bowl half-time show performance, the middling reception to the already released singles, and the internet’s collective dragging of his crimes against Janet Jackson, it’s not been a great time for Timberlake to release his first album in five years. Really, it’s not been a great time for him to release something so astoundingly mediocre. This is the guy who broke the boyband rules to become one of the biggest solo artists of the pop world (as much as he rejected the label of pop). Learning from the best, he cloaked himself in swagger and beats, working with the best and bringing sexy back. FutureSex/LoveSounds remains his magnum opus, and he seems painfully aware that he may never reach such peaks again.
Timberlake’s now older, married with a son, and having spent some time doing some decent acting work, and plenty of eager performances as Jimmy Fallon’s wing-man, he’s keen to reclaim his crown in the music world. Can’t Stop the Feeling did well for him last Summer, although it wasn’t taking him forward as a musician. Man of the Woods feels both achingly earnest and utterly artificial: Timberlake wants to be wiser with his years, but can’t stop himself from falling back on old tricks. The result is an album so disjointed and torn between identities that it feels like several albums worth of filler shoved into one.
Identity is key here, or to be more accurate, the lack thereof. It makes sense that a 37-year-old musician would want to look for new artistic paths that don’t rely on constantly talking about how good he is at fucking. The problem is that most of the album is still tracks where Timberlake is desperate to let you know he’s so damn good at fucking. The sincere tales of his simple family life ring ever more hollow when surrounded by shag-fests of Timbaland beats. When the album actually commits to its conceit, like the best track Say Something, Timberlake doesn’t convince, mostly because he’s duetting with Chris Stapleton, who can do tracks like this in his sleep. Flannel is a sweet, slightly sensual number about enduring love, and while I’m not sure why a song called Montana is a disco-influenced tune, it’s still one of the few tracks worth giving a listen.
Switching between various musical influences wouldn’t be so bad if there were real beats or tunes to back it up. Without that, the efforts simply come across as a guy who has no idea what he wants from this album and is hoping that the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach will work. Filthy is followed by the folksy Midnight Summer Jam, which has potential but it still repetitive and overlong, and that is followed by Sauce, a gentler 80s rock bit with some of the more cringe-worthy song-writing choices on an album full of them. If you thought Timberlake singing, ‘fingers walking, down your legs, hey there’s the faucet’ was disturbing enough, wait until you hear him declare, ‘I love your pink, you love my purple…’
Get it? It’s because he’s got a throbbing knob!
Amid all this sound and fury are interludes, some of which feature Timberlake’s wife Jessica Biel, that add up to little beyond further filler on an album that needed far less of that. They hint at a more tangible thematic consistency that may lie on the recording studio floor. Why not commit to an album about accepting you’re no longer the hot-footed playboy of your youth, and finding peace with family in rustic roots? You’d still get the same criticisms about ‘going white’ following years of appropriating blackness in your hits - rightly so - but at least you’d be consistent. Most of Man of the Woods sounds like Timberlake’s too scared to let go of Timbaland and the Neptunes. Without them, he has little to offer.
Man of the Woods is not an unmitigated disaster. Mostly, it’s too dull to be a train-wreck. The stuff that does work can be found when Timberlake actually leans on the Americana he promised, combined with committed work from his producers, but those are few and far between on an hour long album with 16 tracks. This is a musician who doesn’t know who he is, and the old ways of doing business no longer work in 2018. When you don’t have the tunes, all that’s left is the persona you have built yourself, and Timberlake is not forceful to charismatic enough to pull of either lumbersexual dad or fuck-robot. If this album is a return to his roots then it seems that Justin Timberlake has no idea where he is anymore.
How fans will take to this album remains to be seen. In the UK, it debuted at number two, behind The Greatest Showman soundtrack, which has been on sale for seven weeks.