Justin Timberlake has been away for some time. His last album, The 20/20 Experience, was released in 2013. Since then his cultural relevance has seen him produce the Trolls soundtrack, perform “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” at Eurovision and turn 37. And yet, anticipating Man of the Woods (MOTW), Billboard critics were discussing whether JT was the Best Male Pop Artist of the 21st Century. Maybe, you think. Bieber’s too young, Drake’s more of a rapper than a pop star and – well, who else is there? Perhaps he was, in fact, THE BEST MALE POP ARTIST OF THE 21ST CENTURY.
But then he released Man of the Woods. The Tennessee native has made a romantic soundtrack to white, male republican America, casting himself as the hero: a flannel-wearin’, god-fearin’, land-workin’, wife-possessin’, macho-macho woodman (formatting credit: Sarah Palin/Tina Fey). Because this is his “where I’m from” album, for which he has a mission statement: to ensure people know that he is from the SOUTH (no, NOT Disneyland Florida), where he lives as a MAN (no, NOT an animation).
This album is long: 66 minutes. We’re in this for the long haul and, as one would discover, not the romantic, divorce-defying kind. The surgical operation kind.
The first single, ‘Filthy’, is okay. It works well enough in the club, though its technopop sound comes across as a stereotyped, old timey impression of what the “future” might sound like. The refrain steals from the “haters gonna say it’s fake” meme – a bad sign. But his debut solo album, Justified, was notoriously lacking in the words department and is still charming. Perhaps because some of the lyrics were so corny and dumb. Not that ‘Filthy’ has the same charm. It doesn’t.
The second single, ‘Supplies’, is much less okay. In retrospect, it was the first clue that MOTW would be a self-indulgent exercise in pandering to the conservative values of the American South. The entire song is about Justin being a man who is proud of his ability to provide for his, presumably helpless, woman. Not that JT forgets to pander to his ego. Apparently, he is a “generous lover” … for bearing to listen to said woman. Instrumentally, he attempts to mix folk music (the “where I’m from” bit) and 808s, a musical combination which has never worked before – and still hasn’t.
JT’s third single ‘Say Something’ feat. Chris Stapleton is the best of the lot. The vocals merge well together, the percussion feels authentically country and the overall sound makes for a better honed attempt to enter folk radio. But here he shuns musical peculiarity for a bizarre message: sometimes it’s better to say nothing. This conclusion is, at the least, tone-deaf. But it is particularly chilling when presented in the context of a conservative and hyper-masculine album released in the Weinstein era.
The next track, ‘Sauce’, is preceded by a skit that references yet another viral meme. One can’t help but think that JT’s recurrent use of meme-culture is a cheap shot at relevance. The feel of the song is upbeat and fun but it’s generally overproduced.
MOTW does, however, have a partially redeeming mid-album section. The song ‘Higher, Higher’ is likeable (if you can withstand Justin’s high tenor, which can be jarring). JT even drops the Man of the Woods act to recount meeting his wife for the first time. This is followed by the best song on the album, ‘Wave’, which sounds beautifully like something from ‘Justified’ (the beat is eerily like ‘Rock Your Body’) – the album that made him a credible RnB artist. Certainly, he is a better RnB artist than he is a country artist. Further, Alicia Keys blesses us with her presence on ‘Morning Light’, her first collaboration with JT since 2002. It’s a sweet, laid-back charmer. The song suits Keys’ voice more, and part (all?) of me wants Justin to excuse himself from the recording. But it is warming to see these two artists harmonise about romantic contentment. It is especially poignant given that their parallel ascents, 16 years prior, were based on catalogues of heartbreak.
Breaking a decent run, the “Hers (Interlude)” is a monologue by Jessica Biel about JT. Here, she describes the joys of being “his” … Yes, JT brought his wife in to the studio to discuss how grateful she is to be his possession. Back to the Woods it is.
The song titles of the album’s latter half are advertisement-level obvious. They include ‘Flannel’ (GET IT BECAUSE U.S. SOUTHERNERS WEAR FLANNEL), ‘Livin’ off the Land’ (GET IT BECAUSE U.S. SOUTHERNERS LIVE OFF THE LAND) and ‘Breeze Off the Pond’ (GET IT BECAUSE U.S. SOUTHERNERS…love a good pond). It is as if someone who knew nothing about the U.S. South was making parody songs mocking the U.S. South. This sequence is also the prime reason the album shouldn’t be 66 minutes long: it leads to boring and repetitive songs.
Timberlake closes with ‘Young Man’, a dedication to his son. Timberlake sets out to give advice but, instead, says nothing coherent or meaningful. All indicators point to a heartfelt song that will invoke warmth, but instead its inauthenticity makes you feel uneasy – like you’ve taken a happy pill but can only feel the side effects. It is this inauthenticity that shadows the album.
MOTW has an identity crisis. Timberlake wanted a “where I’m from” album and enlisted The Neptunes and Timberland. But he is from Memphis, Tennessee and they are not country-folk producers. There is nothing Woods-y about 808s. If JT wanted to make an authentic country-folk album, he should have made an authentic country-folk album. Instead he made a poor attempt at an RnB/country-folk crossover with none of the southern authenticity and all the conservative baggage.