Is Justin Timberlake serious? That’s the million dollar question of Man in the Woods, the singer’s perplexing and often regrettable new album. His first since the mostly-consistent 20/20 Experience duology, the album is ostensibly Timberlake’s stripping down of his sleek, glossy public image into something more raw and untamed. There’s plenty to unpack about how Man of the Woods depicts masculinity — specifically, white masculinity — but what stands out most is just how bad this music really is. Timberlake has never sounded so strained, so spread thin, deeply uncomfortable in his new flannel and tuque as depicted in the album’s promotional material and bizarre video for the titular track. What’s clearly meant as a back-to-basics exercise in authenticity comes off as shallow and poorly thought out, a grab bag of tracks sampling gospel, country, folk, and funk that proves about as rugged as a stripper in a lumberjack costume.
Nothing about this album is forgiving. For starters, it’s over an hour long, with most songs clocking in at past the four minute mark despite having about two minutes’ worth of material. Tracks like “Filthy” and “Man of the Woods” are so stripped down and simplified that they barely register as songs at all, whereas “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Supplies” try to do too much. Cringeworthy lines abound, such as a reference to “pink and purple” in “Sauce” that I don’t even want to know means, Timberlake’s privates being compared to a faucet, or his soul in his left pocket. References to nature and living off the land come off as hollow and appropriative, unintentionally hilarious coming from one of the most wealthy and successful musicians in the world. Cultural tourism is nothing new for Timberlake, whose solo career has depended on interpolating R&B and funk created and perfected by black artists, but his wholehearted embrace here of gospel and bluegrass is especially tone deaf. It doesn’t help that “Say Something,” one of the record’s most unfortunate forays into pop country, literally includes Trump supporter Chris Stapleton. It’s not a good look.
It makes you wonder what Timberlake is trying to prove here. Much of the album is focused on the marital bliss between him and wife Jessica Biel, and her spoken word interludes peppered throughout the album are particularly baffling. If the album is meant as a love letter, it’s an embarrassingly public one, and fatherly tribute “Young Man” is just as treacly and disingenuous as anything Biel puts her hands on. If instead this is meant to reintroduce Timberlake to the public as a new man — a husband, a father, a woodsman — it’s confusing and awkward. His performances feel phoned in and occupy a peculiar spot between ironic and heartfelt. The hilariously titled “Flannel” is a half-baked attempt at wholesome folk rock that flatlines as delivered in Timberlake’s clean tenor. (There’s even a spoken word interlude!) Reggae-inflected “Morning Light” is an old-fashioned duet between Timberlake and Alicia Keys where neither comes out on top. And “Montana,” completely out of place with its late 70s disco beat, makes you wish for a new Bee Gees album.
Man of the Woods would probably be perversely enjoyable if it weren’t so damn boring. It’s messy and poorly conceived, a serious misstep for an artist who had, up until this point, made remarkably solid pop music. It’s a big swing and a miss, a belly flop of an album. As Timberlake spits in the album’s opening track, “haters gonna say it’s fake, but it’s so real.” If this is the real Timberlake, maybe he should go back to pretending.
Words by Max James Hill