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Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods Review
While other pop stars of the late ’90s and early 2000s have hit their peak and fizzled out, Justin Timberlake has never slowed down. He’s a survivor, immortal—transitioning from music to film, and beyond. This is partially thanks to his ability to consistently produce reliable hip-hop-influenced pop and R&B—each album carefully providing just enough innovation and variation to keep him sounding fresh. Timberlake has never lost touch with modern music, while remaining very much locked into that Timbaland and Neptunes sound that defined even his Justified days.
That’s partially what made his album announcement for Man of the Woods so fucking confusing. There was our dude, Justin Timberlake, walking through some corn, wearing flannel, and revealing song titles like “Livin’ Off the Land” and collaborations with Chris Stapleton. Who is this guy? When was the last time Justin Timberlake peed outside? When was the last time he didn’t have internet access? Can he even drive stick? After years of appropriating black culture, why was he suddenly embracing his whiteness at this time in American history? People were justifiably baffled, let down, and angry.
Timberlake, to his credit, clarified this week that this is not a country album. It was titled after his son, whose name means “Of the Woods.” If anything, this makes the title more bewildering. What was with the entire rugged, outdoorsy visage? Just look at the image he posted to promote the album’s release on Twitter this week:
Really braving the elements for this one, huh Mr. Revenant?
Well, I’m here to tell you a little bit of good news: Man of the Woods is not a country album. It’s more like deep-fried Justin Timberlake. It’s like stumbling across some awkward campfire party in a clearing in the middle of a forest. It’s like eating a handful of poison berries from a bush and finding yourself scared, confused, nauseous, and lost among the foliage. It has harmonica solos, fiddles, pan flutes, and so many hand drums. It has a weird aversion to choruses and an oddly playful production, like it’s partially meant to be bumped in Timberlake’s nursery. It’s his infamous denim suit resurrected as music.
Man of the Woods is Justin Timberlake’s infamous denim suit resurrected as music.
Lyrics have never been much of a concern in Timberlake’s songs. Who cares what he’s saying when he makes his nonsense sound so goddamn good? But there’s somewhat an emphasis on the message of this album, which makes it tricky to discern Timberlake’s thematic pivot at this point in his adult life. Especially among sparse bumbling Pharrell production on the title track, Timberlake’s words take center stage, perfectly positioned for you to try to figure out what the hell he’s talking about. Here’s the chorus:
I brag about you to anyone outsideBut I’m a man of the woods, it’s my prideI’m sorry baby, you know I tryBut I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride
I truly don’t know what this means. Assuming Of the Woods is his son (although Ofthewoods sounds like a character from The Handmaid’s Tale), is he saying that he’s prideful of his son and is apologizing to his wife that their child takes priority over her? Okay, that would be fair, but then what the hell does the pre-chorus mean?
But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legsHey, there’s the faucetSomeone’s knocking like they knowBut baby, don’t you stop it, yes I’m watchingYour hand slides down the lightAnd girl you know
I have no clue. Please, dear reader, I beg you, don’t search for answers in this Justin Timberlake album. You’ll go partially insane.
You may be asking, then, about the production. Timberlake has always teamed up with the best collaborators in the business—surely he’s at least got some bangers, right? Wrong! This is the anti-banger album, which is, as I said, also averse to choruses. There’s no “SexyBack,” there’s no “Suit & Tie” there’s not even a “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” I’m telling you, you’ll be wishing you were listening to “Can’t Stop the Feeling” on repeat by the time you get to “Wave.” “Wave” is like some sort of silly hoedown that builds into nothing but some creepy whistling after nearly four and a half minutes. Then there’s “Say Something,” which bravely instructs you to say something by saying nothing at all—thus, in the end, saying absolutely nothing. But at least Timberlake makes it sound very serious and important with a choir and acoustic guitars. Chris Stapleton is also there; maybe to make up for the lack of choruses on this album, they put them all on this song. At least the video was good.
There’s “Filthy,” an uncomfortable robot fuck-fest that doesn’t fit with anything else on the album except for “Supplies,” which is like a dystopian text to a drug dealer. Thankfully, “Morning Light” provides somewhat of a relief at the midway point, thanks mostly to Alicia Keys. “Flannel” has a Christian rock hymnal vibe, and I am certain there is not a single person in Montana who would enjoy the song “Montana.” I might have quit right there if I wasn’t so dedicated to hearing “Livin’ Off the Land,” which begins with pan flutes and contains the least convincing portrait of white America that I’ve ever heard.
To say the least—and this is coming from a Justin Timberlake fan, mind you—Man of the Woods is a mess. It’s disappointing. It’s kind of embarrassing. I want to say it’s well-intentioned, but it comes across like Timberlake just didn’t read the room on this one. Specifically, “Flannel” is so poorly-timed that you can’t help but think it was intentional pandering to red states or worse. But isn’t that the most perfectly 2018 thing to happen to Justin Timberlake? Maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt and bury this album somewhere in the woods, along with this uncomfortable diversion in his career.