When it comes to 21st century ex-boy band heartthrobs, Justin Timberlake is the original real deal. Handsome, rebellious, and determined for solo glory, he provided a model for all his successors to follow. But, perhaps unlike the Zayn’s and Harry’s of our day, Justin has long seemed to hold a certain prestige and respect from the wider music world that most who came to fame through his path do not attain. Mr Timberlake is embraced by R&B and hip hop artists as a fellow traveller, and he has done very well to distinguish himself as a thoroughly mature and, at times, forward thinking musician. On his newest record, Man of the Woods, we see him once again charting a path of unexpected experimentation, to varying degrees of success.
The record’s lead single, Filthy, certainly made a big impact when it dropped in January. It may not have been a chart smash hit, but its strange blend of robotic whirring and meaty guitar riffs indicated the direction that JT’s then-upcoming effort might take. The track is funky yet eccentric, with Timberlake promising to do to us “everything we like, times two” over smooth basslines and dubstep-reminiscent electronics. Some listeners were quick to point out a resemblance to his mid-noughties classic SexyBack, which also featured a bold new sound, blending styles, and sexually provocative lyrics. The rest of the album, however, departs mostly from this tone. The only other track with such a distinctly urban and R&B-influenced sound is the Pharrell-produced Supplies, also a commercial single, which has the air of old school Timberlake crossed with elements of 2010s rap. Justin pulls this off highly successfully, however, and at no moment does he sound as if he is trying to embarrassingly ape the stylings of the younger generations, unlike some of his contemporaries may do.
The first two singles aside, most of Man of the Woods takes on an eyebrow-raising genre fusion of pop-R&B and country-tinged numbers. The album, as Timberlake constantly reminds us in his lyrics, is influenced profoundly and constantly by his upbringing in the southern United States. Despite a career of mostly urban-styled music, this record’s theme is wholly rural, creating a rather unique mixture. Justin seems comfortable in who he is – that being a white country boy from Tennessee – but also conscious of the way in which his adult life has reshaped his musical horizons. The result is a collection of songs that range from slightly cheesy agrarian pop, as in Midnight Summer Jam and the album’s title track, to straight southern ballads, as in the duet Say Something with country singer Chris Stapleton. The influence of production by the Neptunes and Timbaland helps Justin’s Deep South sensibilities from getting too out of hand, however, and is largely what keeps him grounded in modern and mostly chart-friendly sonic territory. Still, it is hard not to cringe at certain points throughout the album, such as on a song like Livin’ off the Land with its jangly guitars and samples of mountain men talking about a life far away from mass civilisation. Sure, it is cool and respectable that JT feels such a connection to his roots, but for those of us not used to this very particularly American way of life, it does come across a bit tired and forced. The endeavour is saved, though, by the fact that melodically these tracks are still enjoyable jams, if only a bit forgettable.
As it seems every aging popstar has to do these days, Man of the Woods’ also includes many references to Timberlake’s life as a family man. His wife Jessica Biel features with several spoken word interludes and cameos throughout each track, culminating in an interlude on track 10 in which she rather overdramatically discusses the wonders of wearing her husband’s worn and torn shirt. It’s all very touching, and one can understand why Justin would feel so strongly about these sentiments, but it’s hard not to notice the profound level of cheese present here. On the closing track, Young Man, Timberlake and Biel speak directly to their son, as JT sings about hoping that his heir will grow up to be stand for something, to break hearts, and to one day raise children of his own. It’s hard to fault, as it is clearly genuine, though perhaps a tad insipid for a mainstream pop/R&B record. Maybe it is inevitable that every star of music will eventually have to put aside the partying and debauchery for a simple life, and maybe it is inevitable they will then be led to write mildly embarrassing songs about their new-born kids, but it would be nice if there could be a slightly more creative take on this theme eventually.
Some fans of Timberlake may be disappointed by Man of the Woods. There’s a strong argument to be made that the singles from this album are also the strongest tracks, and it feels like several of these songs – though evidently born out of intriguing concepts – meander a bit and don’t seem to go anywhere meaningful. It’s hard to see people in 10 years talking about this record in the same terms as much of Justin’s earlier work. But it is still an enjoyable listen, and where it’s good, it is very good. This is a man, grown and matured, but still capable of producing bangers and ballads, even if not in anywhere near the same quantities as before.