Man of the Woods isn’t Justin Timberlake’s best work by any means, but you probably already knew that. Timberlake’s fifth solo album is his most criticized work to date; it’s been called a misstep, “failed fusion,” “incoherent,” “underwhelming,” and worse. Critics didn’t love it, but fans gobbled it right up—the record performed well, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200.
While I’m definitely not whelmed by Man of the Woods like I was by 2006’s near-perfect FutureSex/LoveSounds or 2013’s massive, two-part The 20/20 Experience, I do find Timberlake’s latest to be enjoyable listening. It shows JT and longtime co-producers Timbaland and the Neptunes playing with the boundaries of genre more than ever before.
Timberlake made the album with the intention of reconnecting with his roots, expressing his family-man side, and fusing Americana, blues, and country sounds with his usual futuristic funk. With a title inspired by his son Silas—whose name means “of the forest”—Man of the Woods marks a new era in Timberlake’s career, one in which he’s gotten more comfortable sharing tidbits about his marriage to Jessica Biel and their three-year-old son.
To be clear, Timberlake didn’t make a country album; he made a country-themed album that experiments with genre. In a promo video ahead of its release, Timberlake described Man of the Woods as “modern Americana with 808s.” I half-expected Man of the Woods to offer more songs like “Drink You Away,” the sole country track on The 20/20 Experience, and hoped for more songs with a heavy emphasis on Memphis soul, classic rock, and gospel blues. But for the most part, the country elements of Man of the Woods are far from blatant, and often come in the form of recurring survivalist themes. Throughout the record, Timberlake looks to the past—both his own and that of his luminaries. He seeks refuge in the natural world as modern society verges on apocalypse. He indulges in coital bliss and simple pleasures.
On many of these tracks, the sonic fusion works because Timberlake’s still using the harmony tricks and soul-based production that have served him well in the past. There’s southern-flavored disco on “Midnight Summer Jam,” the ending for which includes a long and funky harmonica solo; “Montana” sounds a little bit like an Earth, Wind & Fire dance party in the mountains with your soulmate while you’re both micro-dosing on shrooms. Other highlights include “Higher, Higher” and “Breeze Off the Pond.” I also really like JT’s vocals on the cozy winter hymn “Flannel,” and the sensual “Morning Light” (featuring Alicia Keys) is also right in his comfort zone.
There are definitely songs to avoid, starting with that “Hers” interlude where Jessica Biel waxes poetic about wearing her hubby’s shirt—it just feels like TMI. And I almost always skip the cheese-drenched title track (even though I like the bridge), as well as the full-blown country ballad “The Hard Stuff,” a song that maybe should have been performed by its co-writer Chris Stapleton and also maybe should have left the rest of us alone. “Young Man,” which JT sings to his son, seems like it should’ve been a private birthday present, but still made it onto the album for some reason. Still, overall, Man of the Woods is warm, pleasant, and reminiscent enough of Timberlake’s previous work. He didn’t reinvent anything, but it feels like a necessary exercise in Timberlake’s creative and personal growth.
I’ll be completely honest: I’ve been a diehard Justin Timberlake fan since his NSYNC days. I’ve seen him live seven times, and with each tour, Timberlake outdoes himself—he’s obviously a seasoned vet, his moving Transformer-style stages are always beyond impressive, and he typically performs for nearly two and a half hours.
Timberlake was recently forced to cancel a show at Madison Square Garden after singing with bruised vocal chords, but he’s since made an appearance on The Tonight Show, and it appears that his Portland show will go off without a hitch. Even though it’s not standard protocol for me, I took a peek at the setlist and was pleased to see that FutureSex/LoveSounds tracks like “LoveStoned,” “My Love,” and “Until the End of Time” still made the cut. I do wish JT would perform a few more songs from 20/20, like the rock track “Only When I Walk Away” or the sexy-sweet bop “Pusher Love Girl.” But I also understand that Timberlake’s got A LOT of hits to cover (including some from Justified) and he’s at a new stage of his career.
After spending more than two decades being modern pop music’s leading man, the negative press surrounding Timberlake’s latest album gives him an opportunity to humble and reinvent himself. For now, I’m happy to follow him into the woods and see if there’s another great creation around the bend.