Justin Timberlake's 'Man of the Woods' Marks a Turning Point for a Longtime Superstar
Justin Timberlake was nervously excited at a New York listening party for Man of the Woods last month. He introduced the album quickly and efficiently, saying a few cordial words about its creation, shouting out his wife Jessica Biel (who was in attendance), and proclaiming his new full-length to be his favorite he had ever made. Of course, that put Man of the Woods above his 2002 debut album, Justified, which has four bulletproof singles (“Like I Love You,” “Cry Me a River,” “Rock Your Body” and “Señorita”) on its track list; 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, a towering electro-pop full-length that was nominated for the album of the year Grammy; and The 20/20 Experience, a two-part opus from 2013 teeming with extended soul jams and Timberlake’s most overtly romantic music of his career, on his personal ranking.
Maybe it’s just recency bias. This is Timberlake’s first album in five years, after all, and his excitement about its long-awaited arrival could have provoked some hyperbole. But after hearing Man of the Woods that night, and listening to it in more intimate settings in the following weeks, it’s not a surprise that this is now Timberlake’s favorite of his albums; I suspect that it will be that way for a long time. In many ways, it’s the Most Justin Timberlake Album ever: an indulgent combination of dance, R&B and country; The Neptunes and Timbaland as key co-players; lyrics composed of braggadocio, double-entendres, Southern pride and family-first sentimentality; a run time of over an hour. These are JT hallmarks -- all the sounds and ideas he has explored across various too-big canvases. And while the marketing campaign ahead of Man of the Woods made it seem like Timberlake was pivoting away from pop and going full Bon Iver, the album ultimately serves as a synthesis of his past work, with a nod toward new fatherhood (he named his son Silas, which translates to “of the trees” and inspired the album title), a few more country-radio bids thrown in for good measure (because, hey, who didn’t enjoy that Chris Stapleton duet at the CMAs a few years ago?), and an overall vibe that’s oddly backward-facing, taking cues from disco and '70s funk.
That’s not the worst fate for Timberlake fans starving for new tunes. Of its 16 tracks, Man of the Woods contains a handful of songs that stand up to his best work: the Bee Gees strut of “Montana” radiates heat, and after the album opens on the ambitious but uneven lead single “Filthy,” “Midnight Summer Jam” picks up the missed opportunity with some funk guitar, syncopated strings and playful shit-talking. The new Stapleton duet, “Say Something,” basically says nothing about either superstar, but absolutely works as a harmonic experiment. The secret MVP of the album might be “Higher Higher,” which best replicates the heart-eyes fizziness of 20/20 Experience but employs a more subtle vocal take and a Neptunes arrangement that glides toward a handclap climax.
Timberlake has understood how to make successful pop music for two decades, and has not been able to edit himself for nearly as long. In his first project since The 20/20 Experience, a project full of excellent four-minute songs often stretched by Timbaland and Timberlake well past the seven-minute mark, Timberlake has made a strong 10-song full-length that frustratingly trots on for 16 tracks. Songs like “Supplies,” “Filthy” and the title track are all explorations (in trap-pop, glitchy house and backwoods country, respectively) that don’t congeal, while “Flannel,” the rustic ballad we were promised on the album’s red-herring trailer, completely misses the emotional mark. Timberlake clearly sees himself as an "album artist” responsible for cohesive statements, yet the sound and quality of Man of the Woods oscillates so wildly from track to track that it’s difficult to sink into the project, even while admiring the ambition of the missteps. One of my colleagues compared the DNA of Man of the Woods to that of Miley Cyrus’ 2013 LP Bangerz, and they’re not far off: Each project swings for the fences with some grandiose genre-blurring and produces a handful of both home runs and complete whiffs.
Man of the Woods may serve as an interesting turning point in Timberlake’s recording career: As negative reviews pile up and “Filthy” fails to connect at top 40 radio, one of the century's biggest pop superstars may need to rethink his strategy, seemingly for the first time since he launched his solo career. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. There’s a lack of urgency running throughout Man of the Woods, even on the sleekly designed high points, that may be a byproduct of Timberlake not feeling challenged by his music, and wanting to give in to base impulses more than push out another masterpiece. This is evident in the chief album collaborators remaining his super-producer buds, as well as in the subject matter, which never acknowledges any issues wider than his own insecurities -- a lacking the heavy-handed "Supplies" video tries to make up for wholesale, with muddled and largely derided results.
At 37, Timberlake has earned the right to make the music he wants to make, and regardless of how Man of the Woods performs commercially, he’s still an A-lister with plenty of hits to pack arenas. What this album does, however, is question the vitality that Timberlake will maintain within modern pop music. Will someone who’s been famous for more than half of his life, and has taken extended breaks from music, retreat from pop superstardom -- or fight to preserve it? Man of the Woods is worth exploring, but it’s already worth wondering how Timberlake follows it: hopefully with a sharpened focus, on the future instead of the past.