Review Summary: I'm up in the woods - I'm all outta style
Justin Timberlake could have done folk. I didn't want him to, to be clear, but his work on Inside Llewyn Davis
surely proves that he at least has the pipes and the warmth, and his ending-of-Dexter
beard and rugged outfit (I'll get to the fucking flannel in a minute – don't worry) proves that he could at least pull off the look, as we must imagine Timberlake can pull off any look imaginable. Again, I didn't want a folk album and nor did I expect one, but he could've done it.
Justin Timberlake could have done straight R&B. Hell, he could have pulled a passably convincing album of songs like "Filthy", preferably with every utterance of haters gon' say it's fake
edited out, but still. It would have sounded like a dozen cheap imitations of "SexyBack" recorded to fulfill a contract, sure. But there would have been undeniable moments of beauty regardless, like when "Filthy" cracks open its faux-Yeezus
shell and reveals a gorgeous vista in that all-too-short bridge. I didn't want a straight R&B album, I probably wouldn't have settled for one, but he could've done it.
Instead, at the end of "Filthy" a ghostly Jessica Biel voice literally beckons Justin into the woods. If that sounds like a piss-poor attempt at giving this album some sort of overarching concept, that's because it is, and it also somehow manages to sound like a cheap commercial for a nature walk. And we're still in the good part here.
In fairness to Timberlake – a fairness I feel legitimately disinclined to extend, but will do anyway as a feint towards objectivity – it almost sounds like he's gonna pull it off. "Midnight Summer Jam" reminds me of what "True Blood" could have been as a good song, keeping the beautiful clattering drums but with the wolf howls and minor key harmonies replaced by a cheery guitar strum, a light, easy vocal, and a final minute jam like Bowie's "Fame" played on helium. The best track, "Sauce", winds a distorted riff tightly around a hook so good it's inconceivable that it wasn't tapped for a lead single, and towards album's end there's even a semi-comeback with "Montana"/"Breeze off the Pond", the only point where the cringeworthiness of this 'woodsman' affectation is held at bay by the eagerness of the melodies. Justin Timberlake could have done a decent album, maybe even a good one.
But good lord, the rest. If titles like "Livin' off the Land" and "Flannel" don't immediately raise warning lights, it takes a few seconds of dollar-store-Bon Iver-meets-worst-member-of-'N Sync to torpedo every good impression Man of the Woods
might have made towards the start. Hell, "Flannel" alone could have sunk the entire affair, being arguably the worst song of all time by anyone, an ode to the glories of the titular shirt type apparently composed at a bible camp by an aging counselor who covers Cat Stevens by the campfires. That's without mentioning the laughable interlude leading into it, where Jessica Biel 'waxes poetic' about the benefits of shirts - once again these songs are about flannel
- over twinkling piano keys to sound like either the world's tamest porno opening or a very Christian PSA inexplicably equating flannel shirts with dangerous drugs. The truth is, with the half-comeback excluded, it's all garbage from the breathtakingly terrible chorus of "Wave" (spoiler: there's another wave) up to the final moments – from the shamelessly chart-hungry "Supplies" to an Alicia Keys collaboration in 2018; from "Say Something" (budget "Drink You Away") to the bit in "Young Man" where Timberlake imparts the wisdom to his two-year-old son "beautiful boy, got it from yo mama/don't she look good, you might get a sister" (no Justin, you are not Kanye and you do not get away with this).
To summarise, Man of the Woods
is an astoundingly poor, inconsistent, and sloppily constructed outing from an artist whose defining feature has been his ability to cleanly reinvent his image. I guess the "Filthy" video was the outlet for all that creativity this time around, 'cos there's certainly none of it on the goddamn album. Maybe 2 of 2
and Man of the Woods
are just a temporary low point, the equivalent of those 80s nadirs that James Brown, Bowie and all those other artists Timberlake admires seemed to hit. It's just worrying how easy it is to believe the guy's lost his touch instead. If moving out to the woods did this to one of pop music's greatest talents, maybe deforestation's not such a bad thing.