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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Justin Timberlake's woeful ploy to be a ‘Man of the Woods’

Diane Park | The Observer

The entire concept for “Man of the Woods,” Justin Timberlake’s latest effort, is all too easy to make fun of. It’s an album of what’s still clearly Timberlake’s classic 2000s pop, but influenced by “the outdoors,” all while attempting to maintain the same level of sex appeal that was a cornerstone of his best work.

The lyrical concepts for so many tracks are so bizarre, they become almost fascinating. In the title track, Timberlake lives in the woods and apparently stops “everyone outside” to “brag about” the subject of the song. However, he can’t devote himself completely to the woman because he’s a “Man of the Woods,” a role that apparently consists of stopping “everyone outside” to “brag about” his girl. There’s another track, “Supplies,” that attempts to make doomsday prepping sexy. Musically, the concept feels just as wrong. The production is smoothly polished, but few arrangements can make banjos and harmonica solos look good alongside 808s. Instead of some kind of revolutionary blending of genres that appear worlds apart, the moments when both threads of musical influence collide sound like a clunky mess.

Then, there are some of the individual lyrics. Again, in the title track, you have one of the most embarrassing attempts at sexual lyricism of all time, from the man who once brought “Sexy Back.” Singing, “But then your hands talking, fingers walking / Down your legs, hey, there’s the faucet / Someone’s knocking like they know,” Timberlake finds an innuendo that even he cannot deliver smoothly and caps it off with a weirdly mixed metaphor.

Yet somehow, none of these are the reasons why “Man of the Woods” feels like such a disappointment. Yes, the lyrics are awful, but it’s always been easy to overlook bad lyrics in lieu of good tunes. And, the worst lyrical moments on the album always seem to appear during the better musical ones. The moments where rhythm and blues and folk meet musically are not, by any means well-executed, but at least they’re something different and interesting. For the most part, “Man of the Woods” isn’t bad because of its terrible concept. It’s bad because it’s just not exciting.

Lyrically, the outdoorsman theme of the album is mostly consistent, with the exception of album-opener “Filthy.” But musically, virtually every track falls into one of two categories: a vastly toned-down version of the old school Justin Timberlake (someone whose style should never be toned down) or something that sounds like a mediocre piece of modern country-pop. The record's not bad enough to sound like it’s from someone with zero country credentials, but it’s far from good and certainly not all that imaginative compared to the many innovative mainstream pop influences dominating the country charts in recent years.

Not even Chris Stapleton, one of the best country artists operating in the mainstream today, can save “Man of the Woods,” since everything that makes Stapleton's aesthetic so poignant gets lost in the sheen and repetition of “Say Something,” on which the country singer’s voice is overproduced to the point that he sounds like an unidentifiable older, deeper voice. The rest of the album, once you get past the awkwardness of the gimmick — which gets old long before the 65-minute runtime is complete — you’ll notice that the tricks mostly paper over the fact that there’s nothing there sonically.

The truth is, for all the jokes, a Justin Timberlake attempt to make an out-and-out country or folk album would have been something interesting, the kind of adventurous move that only a superstar has the freedom to try. Unfortunately, Timberlake gives us a weak attempt to recreate his best work, sprinkling in some moments of Americana to hide how uninteresting the album would be otherwise. The album isn’t a massive trainwreck, but it commits a crime that may be worse in pop music: boredom.


Artist: Justin Timberlake

Album: “Man of the Woods”

Label: RCA

Favorite Track: “Morning Light”

If You Like: Rejected songs from N*E*R*D*’s latest album, Glamping

Shamrocks: 1.5 out of 5