Justin Timberlake simply wants too much on Man of the Woods
Global pop star Justin Timberlake is currently going through a period in his career in which his authority is being questioned. With only four albums in about fifteen years (before last week), Timberlake was always perfectly efficient and never really failed to get the hits, but his latest campaign supporting his fifth album Man of the Woods has not been an easy ride. First singles ‘Filthy’ and ‘Supplies’ received mixed reviews from critics and fans and his Super Bowl Halftime Performance from last weekend was widely criticized for being too safe and a tad boring. So far, the reactions to the record itself haven’t been exactly what Timberlake and his team were probably hoping for. So where is it all going wrong?
Timberlake announced the album with a promotional video in which he spoke about going back to his roots and how the record is an ode to his family. Understandably, some confusion arose when the two first singles were mainly futuristic bops. After hearing the full record multiple times, it is clear what Timberlake and the Neptunes tried to create here, but it did not all work. Timberlake did not want to let go of his brand of futuristic pop, soul and contemporary R&B completely and it is a hell of a job to combine this with country and Americana sounds. Man of the Woods constantly evokes the reaction: “I see what you tried to do there, but it didn’t quite work.”
When listening to Man of the Woods I can’t help but feel that Timberlake is desperately trying to underline what the album means, especially in terms of lyrics. Tracks like ‘Living off the Land’ and ‘Flannel’ feel contrived and try-hard, because of the words in which the themes of the record are thrown at us with a complete lack of subtlety. This however does not mean that all of Timberlake’s country aspirations are going nowhere. Third single ‘Say Something’, assisted by Chris Stapleton, is easily one of the best songs on the album with an undeniable radio chorus. Together with the gospel inspired title track, it is one of the few instances in which the worlds of contemporary R&B and country and Americana actually successfully come together. The harmonica on the otherwise hit worthy ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ feels out of place however and even the personal topics of last two tracks ‘The Hard Stuff’ and ‘Young Man’ (written for his son) come across as slightly cheesy and lack the emotional power one would expect in songs like these.
At the same time Timberlake and his team did mage to create a handful of tracks that sound natural and effortless. ‘Higher Higher’ is the highlight starting out with an acoustic guitar, building into a breezy, laidback instrumentation, serving hook after hook. This is a more than worthy addition to the highs of Justin’s discography. To a lesser extent, the same goes for the groovy and funky ‘Montana’ and the infectious ‘Breeze off the Pond’. These more straightforward songs focus on one main idea and soundscape and the execution is impeccable, without any unnecessary added outros or interludes. If only Justin Timberlake would have followed the same pattern for the whole record. There is nothing wrong with ambition, experimenting and throwing together completely different styles, as long as it all comes together in a cohesive and most of all believable body of work. Unfortunately that is not what Man of the Woods is.