Justin Timberlake, Mr. “Suit and Tie,” led up to this album with a Levi’s commercial and the promise of “it’s like the Wild West, like now,” and that maybe tells you everything you’d absolutely ever need to know about Man of the Woods, because, you see, Man of the Woods is exactly what that sounds like.
It sounds like a Levi’s commercial with Instagram filters. It sounds like designer trucker jackets. It’s the sound of a pop star pretending to go back to his Tennessee roots with songs called “Flannel” and “Montana” and a Chris Stapleton feature and it almost feels like I’m making this up.
But I’m not. It’s 2018, y’all, and now we have to talk about a world where a Justin Timberlake song called “Flannel” exists.
Besides, there are moments where maybe Timberlake can outshine the absurdities. Timberlake certainly has a charisma that other pop artists don’t, and he definitely plays that hand in a few of the more forced MJ clones on Man of the Woods. See “Higher Higher” and “Montana,” a pair of funkadelic bangers that see the man of Canadian tuxedos sell those woodland settings with actual swagger. Does it matter that they have the substance of a 2018 Walden fan fiction? Maybe?
But Man of the Woods sounds incredibly dated for a guy who billed his career around the image of forward thinking pop music.
This is the voice of FutureSex/LoveSounds, remember? Way back when, Timberlake was the kind of artist who could maybe mine the shape of pop to come. Songs like “Cry Me a River” and “My Love,” while maybe not the standard bearers, were at least forward thinking.
The closest Man of the Woods comes to that kind of direction is “Filthy,” the lead single that follows up a line about letting a beast out of its cage with an actual tiger growl. There’s an ugly undulation to the whole thing, which wouldn’t be so damnable if there was something at least a little interesting to offset that rhythm. (There isn’t.) There almost is with the classic rock swells at “Filthy’s” bookends, but that maybe makes the offense so much worse.
“Filthy” is almost a red herring though. It’s the furthest from this image of Man of the Woods that was pitched when Timberlake threw on that workman’s jacket. No, the Justin Timberlake of Man of the Woods has more important things on his mind, like digging his heels into the dirt and dissecting the Southern Man – and by that, I mean concluding that “the greatest way to say something/is to say nothing at all” and warning people not to “act like the South ain’t the shit.” Truly a philosopher for these troubled times.
Really, though, the album becomes a digression more into Bruno Mars territory than the Bon Iver-receding-to-a-log-cabin-and-finding-yourself the opening images of this record seemed to imply. It’s Timberlake mining that old gold soul of Motown like he’s wont to do, but with a voice that’s weirdly more faithful than he’s really been in the past.
Sure there are exceptions to that: “Filthy” certainly exists for some unfortunate reason, and then there’s “Supplies” with its gritty trap beat that’d probably be more engaging if it wasn’t for the parts where Timberlake tries to impress post-apocalyptic ladies with innuendos. And then there’s that organic Stapleton feature – the already omnipresent “Say Something” – where Timberlake’s and Stapleton’s traded growls mix into this record’s only true natural moment.
But it’s mostly just a “Sounds of the ‘70s” cover act with a budget, complete with the awkward missteps its reference points would probably never take. There are weird themes that seem out of place in an album of swagger and skronk, themes that quite frankly grate against that skronk. Calm breezes floating off a pond are probably not the sounds of discotheques, contrary to Timberlake’s “Breeze Off the Pond.” You’re probably not going to find 808s when scavenging through the woods, though “Livin’ Of the Land” would say otherwise.
There is one thing that Timberlake does well around the weird disconnects here, though, and maybe it’s something that should be attributed more to The Neptunes – Timberlake’s longtime production partners, including one Pharrell Williams – than Timberlake himself: They actually float. There’s an airiness to these tracks, with urban flourishes that actually brew a less hostile contrast than the conflicts that scatter Man of the Woods’ meatier sections. While it’s certainly not enough to dismiss the weightier criticisms of this overblown vanity piece, maybe it’s enough to at least earn Timberlake that breath of fresh air he seems to long for so much in Man of the Woods.
I don’t know what to feel.
Before Man of the Woods came out, woodsman Justin Timberlake released a trailer for the album. It was amaaaazing. It was too full of its own bullshit to ever be sincere, but I wanted in that moment to believe that JT was going through a full on character assassination on himself. I wanted this thing to crash and burn because it was all just so pompous and faux-art and deplorable.
I should have known.
I really should have known the moment the voice over starts with its “feels like mountains, trees, campfires. Like Wild West but now” nonsense. I can’t believe I believed it! I am a fool!
But then the album came out and it was immediately obvious that JT was poking fun at himself. Like, too much. Three songs into Man of the Woods and they should be pulling him off the stage with a cane.
That said, Man of the Woods is an absolutely ridiculous album for a major league pop star to be putting out and I mean that in some ways as a compliment.
It is completely, unceasingly awful, but it’s also fascinating.
It is without a doubt the closest that Justin Timberlake will get to creating his Metal Machine Music. It is his Lulu. Justin Timberlake was on some Andy Kaufman shit when he made this thing. It should be the last Justin Timberlake album. Justin Timberlake should have disappeared from the face of the earth the moment this thing went up on Spotify.
“He done killed hisself, I reckon.”
“How ‘fer did he do it?”
“Man of the Woods, boy. Man of the Woods.”
I think the Super Bowl Half Time Show is an important ingredient in all of this. It was, by all accounts, pretty bad. But it had hits! It had hits that dared your mind to fill in all the blanks in the performance. It was a 5 minute test of your nostalgia to adequately create enough dopamine. It was like watching a star fade in real time. He didn’t even sing into the microphone for most of it. It was something else.
And then the album comes out, and it’s worse. So much worse. But like I said, I think it’s on purpose. I think Justin Timberlake has a lot of things in his crosshairs on this thing. It reminds me of all the Drake albums that come out that are all way too long and sound exactly the same and they set all-time streaming records every single time. It reminds me of every pop star’s hubris-laden late-career “statement” that doesn’t actually say anything. It’s an incomprehensible slog of a listen and I think Justin Timberlake wanted it that way and in that way it goes beyond my expectations. It’s like he is both the 70s soft-rock star putting out not one but two 20/20 Experience albums in a row and the leather-clad punk who feels compelled to rebel against that very idea. I feel like it’s edgy to even put this thing out.
I think Pharrell is in on it too. I think he realized he is a cartoon character so he literally focused on evolving the sound he created for the Spongebob Squarepants movie sequel. This means that, like Lou Reed’s guitar feedback, Pharrell paints his own Metal Machine Music with a very unique and distinct and awful brush: pitch shifted toms.
Imagine BWOOM if BWOOM there BWOOM were BWOOM pitch BWOOM shifted BWOOM toms BWOOM firing BWOOM at BWOOM all BWOOM times.
This is the experience of listening to Man of the Woods. All notion of melody, any hint of enjoyment is suffocated under an unceasing deluge of pitch-shifted toms. Tracing the path that got us here is folly. Pharrell is a monster. So is Justin Timberlake. Kanye pales in comparison.
Justin Timberlake is daring you to listen to this album because it is a successful pop album and you are going to do it despite the fact that it is complete garbage. He is going to have Chris Stapleton guest on a track because it’s funny and it’s something someone would do if they were serious about making an album called Man of the Woods. He is going to write a song about flannel because it fits so well that it would feel weird for it not to be there. Like on this stupendously nonsensical album if there wasn’t a song called “Flannel” about his soul being in his chest which is in his flannel, it would feel like there was this weird “Flannel”-sized hole in the whole thing. It would fall apart immediately.
I honestly don’t think Justin Timberlake could make a great album at this point. He has established his style and it sucks. But Man of the Woods isn’t trying to be a great album, and god bless it for it. It becomes instead performance art of a strange and wondrous kind. Come watch the celebrity man put his career on a pedestal and then push the pedestal over. Watch it break.