In 2002, after a seven-year-long career as a teen heartthrob making music with NSYNC, Justin Timberlake released his wildly successful solo debut, Justified. Filled with hip-hop and R&B-tinged instrumentals from legendary producers The Neptunes and Timbaland, it cemented Timberlake as a force to be reckoned with in pop culture.
Timberlake has received praised at the highest levels; he’s been criticized just as strongly. His latest album is the latest installment to a history of poorly executed albums searching for new ways to redefine an established sound. Filled with a pseudo-country twang, Man of the Woods comes off as a misplaced attempt to reinvent the sounds of popular folk and country music.
In the past, Timberlake’s music was set apart by its mesmerizing production from those same hip-hop legends who were partially responsible for hits by Jay-Z, Rihanna, Usher and Madonna; Timberlake’s lyrics have never been the main selling point behind his music. With Man of the Woods, his lyrics continue down the road of mediocrity and the production begins to follow a similar path.
When Timberlake tries to pull out the folk side that might be resting deep down inside him, the production adopts his averageness. There isn’t much that distinguishes each track from the rest. The chord progressions are eerily reminiscent of each other, making them sound generic and forced. Additionally, Timberlake sounds out-of-place over half of the production on his own album. There aren’t enough drums to give the songs a dance-pop that has fit and still fits him so well.
While the overall theme of urbanite-wandering-through-the-woods fails as a whole over the course of the album, it has its moments in a handful of tracks. “Breeze Off the Pond” features incredibly-catchy guitar chords and some of Timberlake’s least corny lyrics on the album. The production on “Supplies” is reason enough to throw it on party playlists for months to come. “Morning Light,” featuring Alicia Keys, is a track that captures the pure bliss of waking up next to the person you love. The outlier in the country-tinged tracks is the Chris Stapleton-assisted track “Say Something.” It’s not the best on the album, but the guitars are infectious and Timberlake and Stapleton both come through with extremely passionate performances.
Unfortunately, for every noteworthy track, there were two that stopped any positive momentum that came as a result. “Flannel” is the most egregious display of a forced outdoorsy image. Backed by a generic folk-inspired guitar instrumental, Timberlake croons about the importance of his flannel that “will keep you warm.” It’s a prime example of the Tennessee native miserably failing to relate to his country roots that he hasn’t acknowledged in his music until now. The song is further ruined by an absolutely bizarre monologue from Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel.
Man of the Woods’ suffers from a lack of cohesion. Timberlake jumps around from style to style, not fully committing to the innovation that launched him to stardom and also putting unfocused energy into the folk twist that mars several of the tracks. Within the track list, there is a solid album — nothing that reaches the heights of his past projects, but still a decent album. Cut the poorly executed country tracks and the dreadful opening track “Filthy,” and Timberlake would have seen more success. He’s only got room for improvement after this album. In a few years time, he may surprise us with another album on par with the work everyone knows he’s capable of.