Is The New Justin Timberlake Album As Bad As Everyone Says? An Investigation
Justin wants you to know he wears flannel.
Last week, Justin Timberlake released Man of the Woods, his first album in five years. The reviews haven’t been good.
Pitchfork labelled the release “indulgent, inert, and vacuous” (and slapped a 3.8/10 rating on it), The Guardian called it a “failed fusion”, and High Snobriety simply said the album is “painfully bad“. It’s quite the downward turn for man who was once universally regarded as the Prince of Pop.
But is Man of the Woods really as bad as it’s been made out to be? Let’s investigate.
Man of The Woods: An Introduction
In early January, Timberlake slid back into pop’s consciousness with an album trailer that screamed I’ve-Just-Listened-To-Bon-Iver. It seemed Man of the Woods was intended to be Justin’s Joanne: a ‘back to the roots’ concept album that would see him reconnect with his Tennesseean upbringing (while still employing Timbaland and Pharrell as producers, of course.)
The subsequent tracklist, which revealed titles like ‘Flannel’, ‘Breeze Off The Pond’, and ‘Livin’ Off The Land’ hammered home this aesthetic. This wasn’t going to be slicked back FutureSex/LoveSounds Justin, this was going to be rustling-cows-while-wearing-a-ripped-singlet Justin.
But then he threw us a curveball in the form of first single, ‘Filthy‘. Instead of a dusty alt-country track, Justin delivered a squelchy, sexed-up, Prince off cut that featured a woman’s heavy breathing as part of the instrumentation. Evidently, Justin wasn’t quite ready to cast off his former self.
Second release ‘Supplies’ — with it’s doomsday trap beat and vocoder harmonies — only continued to muddle the Woods aesthetic. Subsequent singles ‘Man Of The Woods’ and ‘Say Something’ (co-written by and featuring country star Chris Stapleton) righted the ship somewhat — but until the full record landed last Friday, we really had no idea what to expect.
Let’s Not Muck Around: There’s A Lot Of Bad Music Here
At 16 tracks and 65 minutes long, Man of the Woods is on the longer side of the pop album spectrum. And unfortunately, the majority of those minutes are bad ones.
The biggest and most obvious problem is cohesion. Justin has attempted to marry country flirtations with tracks that sound straight out of Timbaland’s playbook circa 2003 — and it just doesn’t work. Most painfully, this collision often occurs in the same song: ‘Sauce’ stuffs a jaunty country guitar lick inside a sleazy ’80s funk melody, while the title track features ‘Walking On Sunshine’-style guitars laid atop a syrupy bass line. Both songs are hot messes from start to finish.
At least, on those two tracks, Justin has focussed on just a couple of ideas. Elsewhere, like the awful ‘Midnight Summer Jam’, he attempts to slam five completely different songs together into a jittery four minutes. It doesn’t get much better the further in you go: ‘Flannel’ (I know…) sounds like a Christmas Carol deliberately marketed at Nashville residents, and ‘Wave’ is so immediately forgettable I listened to it three times through before I clocked that it was playing.
‘Wave’ is also about the point when you realise just how long Man of the Woods is. At track #6, you feel like you should be getting somewhere — but nope, there are still 10 more songs ahead of us. Come to think of it, if you cut out songs 2-7 of this album…it would be a lot better. And if you cut every song down by a minute…that would also be an improvement.
Then there’s the spoken word interludes. For ‘Hers’, Timberlake brought his wife — actress Jessica Biel — into the studio to deliver quiet a stream of consciousness that include cringeworthy lines like this: “When I wear his shirt…it feels like his skin over mine/And the little holes and tears and shreds on it are the memories of the past.”
It’s a downhill run from there. Tracks like ‘Breeze Off The Bond’, ‘Livin’ off the Land’ and ‘The Hard Stuff’ float by without leaving any impression — until finally, Man of the Woods gasps its last breath with inoffensive pop ditty ‘Young Man’.
All of this adds up to a record that — amazingly, after 66 minutes — manages to say nothing at all. Timberlake’s grand vision of turning from a lothario into a simple family man doesn’t fail as much as it just doesn’t materialise at all.
Another failure of Man of the Woods is that the production completely buries Timberlake’s fantastic voice. His best tracks have hung off that dreamy falsetto (‘Cry Me A River’) and rippling bass tones (‘SexyBack’) but on Man of the Woods Timberlake seems content to deliver a middling vocal performance in just about every song. The fact that we know he has the chops makes it all the more frustrating that he’s not using them.
But It’s Not A Complete Write Off…
There are two redeeming moments on Man of the Woods: ‘Filthy’, and ‘Say Something’.
‘Filthy’, despite being initially knocked by critics because of its robo-sex film clip and thwubbing bassline, is a banger. ‘Say Something’, steered by the excellent songwriting of Stapleton, is a country gem. It also contains a line that accidentally encapsulates Man of the Woods: “Sometimes the greatest way to say something/Is to say nothing at all.”
For the majority of his career, Justin has never been interrupted by anything even resembling criticism. He’s both a highly successful actor and a beloved popstar — and at no point have we ever really stopped to wonder whether he actually deserved any of this. The fact that he just delivered one of the most underwhelming Superbowl Halftime Shows in history, but walked away from it relatively unscathed, is a prime example of how much wiggle room we give Timberlake.
His Superbowl show was a bad performance. Man of the Woods is a bad album. Sorry Justin, but you aren’t getting away with mediocrity anymore.
Jules is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.