Historically, pop artists have launched new albums with a “statement single.” As Slate pointed out last year, these songs might introduce sonic U-turns (see Taylor Swift’s electroclash revenge fantasy “Look What You Made Me Do”) or underline trenchant points of view (Dixie Chicks’ self-explanatory, non-mea culpa “Not Ready To Make Nice”). For his fifth solo album, Man Of The Woods, Justin Timberlake went a different route, and unveiled the record with a “statement trailer.”
The brief video found him cavorting in National Geographic-worthy farmland and snow-covered fields, acting out messianic scenes (cleansing himself in a creek) and romantic snapshots (snuggling with his sweetheart, actor Jessica Biel). “This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any other album I’ve ever written, where I’m from,” he intoned somberly over the picturesque footage. “And it’s personal.”
Speculation immediately ran rampant that Timberlake had (again) pulled a Bon Iver (“Listens to For Emma once,” trolled the band’s label, Jagjaguwar) or made a country album. The latter thought wasn’t necessarily far-fetched. Timberlake is a proud Memphis native, and, at the 2015 CMA Awards, he and country superstar Chris Stapleton teamed up to cover George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” and Timberlake’s own “Drink You Away.”
Of course, the problem with statement singles (and statement trailers) is they’re often outliers, and not actually indicative of what a record sounds like. And so although Man Of The Woods boasts songwriting credits from Stapleton—along with ostensibly rugged song titles such as “Flannel,” “Montana,” and “Livin’ Off The Land”—the record isn’t any sort of stab at back-to-basics authenticity. It’s merely Justin Timberlake grappling with fatherhood and marriage, coming to terms with being pop’s elder statesman, and confronting his own cutting-edge sonic legacy.
This is all serious subject matter, which likely explains why Man Of The Woods isn’t as lighthearted or party-ready as other Timberlake efforts. However, the record is markedly more likable than both volumes of The 20/20 Experience, which were marred by interminable song lengths. In fact, Man Of The Woods finds the ex-boy bander embracing his pop-superstar persona more than he has in recent years. “Filthy” is a rubbery funk seduction co-written by James Fauntleroy, who’s fresh off his two Grammy Awards for Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like”; the propulsive “Breeze Off The Pond” feels like a sonic throwback to 2002’s “Rock Your Body”; and the string-punctured “Midnight Summer Jam” is the kind of fleet-footed R&B/soul at which Timberlake excels.
That being said, Man Of The Woods also doesn’t take the obvious route. Working primarily with Timbaland, The Neptunes, and Danja, Timberlake is a defiant dilettante. He revels in blurring genre lines—much as Memphis music always has—and prioritizes ornate detailing: a cappella vocal flourishes, lush multi-part harmonies, shimmering keyboards, and crisp acoustic guitar flourishes. (One major exception to this subtlety is the boisterous highlight “Livin’ Off the Land”: The song encourages personal empowerment by bootstrapping, and matches this message with sturdy, Broadway-esque bellows on the lines “I’m just one man / Doing the best that I can / Saint or a sinner, a loser can be a winner with a plan / When you’re livin’ off the land.”)
At its best, this approach leads to sonic whirlwinds: a bubblegum twang-funk revue (“Sauce”), blues rock twisted with retro soul (“Higher, Higher”), throbbing electro-rock (“Montana”), and a gnarled country ballad (“The Hard Stuff”). At worst, Man Of The Woods sounds muddled and unfocused. The messy “Wave” combines 8-bit electro percolations, gulping acoustic guitar strums, and nods to traditional Russian dance; the laissez-faire hip-hop single “Supplies” relies on irritating, drawn-out repetition of the title to grab listeners; and the Alicia Keys-featuring “Morning Light” can’t decide whether it wants to be an R&B throwback or reggae pop. Stapleton’s storytelling gifts are also wasted on the easygoing campfire jam “Say Something,” which crests with the lukewarm sentiment, “Sometimes, the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”
As that tune implies, lyrics are Man Of The Woods’ major weakness. There are clumsy come-ons (“I’ll be the generator, turn me on when you need electricity”), trite platitudes (“Success is cool / Money is fine / But you’re special, another level”), and even some head-scratching proclamations. Take the title track, which starts with the lyrics, “I brag about you / To anyone outside / But I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride,” or the embarrassing “Flannel,” which uses the phrase “fancy record company man” with a straight face. Oddly enough, the lyrics offer few of the promised personal insights. It’s the kind of narrative storytelling crafted by someone who’s used to writing fiction, not keeping a confessional diary.
Even worse, the album’s most personal glimpses feel tacked on, as if someone realized Man Of The Woods needed more Timberlake-specific touches. “Hers (Interlude)” features Biel murmuring lines such as, “When I wear his shirt, it feels like his skin over mine,” as introspective piano and gauzy strings unfurl around her. The mercifully brief song inadvertently resembles a parody of a deodorant commercial. The album-closing folk-pop lullaby “Young Man” is a sweet epistolary pep talk directed toward Timberlake’s son, Silas. In a treacly note, the song begins and ends with samples of the tot and his parents cooing at one another.
The self-indulgence built into these songs is easy to dismiss. However, the calculation involved with these rather intimate gestures isn’t so easy to overlook; they feel shoehorned into a preconceived narrative, as if to check off the “family” box, and they feel oddly placed in a record that is largely solipsistic.
But this contradiction also speaks to the distance between Man Of The Woods’ intention and execution. Without coming out directly and saying it, Timberlake is clearly intending this record to be a bold, mature adult statement. (For comparison, think of it as his version of Madonna’s own sophisticated coming-out, Like A Prayer.) Musically, he remains one of the mainstream’s boldest artists. Unfortunately, Man Of The Woods’ thematic depth hasn’t quite caught up to the rest of his ambition. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it does make for a record that’s not quite as transcendent as it was built up to be.