Likes: Higher, Higher, Morning Light, Say Something, The Hard Stuff
Dislikes: Man of the Woods, Supplies
Overall: At best, it's mundane. At worst, it's southern farce that's almost insulting.
The debut promotional video for Justin Timberlake's fourth LP, Man of the Woods, shows him out and about in the elements. There are shots of snow, sun covered crops, desert landscapes, babbling brooks and crackling fires. In the voice-over, you hear buzz words like "wild West" and "earthy." JT proclaims that this "personal" record is the one most inspired by his Tennessee roots, in addition to his wife and child. The artwork has a split portrait of him before a winter forest; his apparel is part suit, part flannel/jeans. This is all to impress upon the listener that what they're about to hear will be rustic, raw and unveiling in an insightful and endearing way. In actuality, it's such a shallow, contrived and caricatured performance of 'down-home authenticity,' that it's off-putting and distancing.
Timberlake's birth state is the home of the blues (Memphis), bluegrass (Bristol) and country (Nashville). Yet, he fails so miserably to effectively employ their tools, it's as if he only has third-hand familiarity with them. Being an R&B/pop artist who hails from Memphis, you'd think blues would be the go-to framework for this album. Ain't a whiff of B.B. King anywhere. Barely any bluegrass either. Mechanisms of country are used in a sparse and decorative manner. This nearly nullifies the compliment that the genre is smoothly integrated with Timberlake's signature sound. "The Hard Stuff" and "Say Something" with Chris Stapleton is as 'Music City' as it gets. Making things worse, Timberlake uses woefully stereotypical (if not corny) imagery in the lyrics and song-titles to project 'rugged South' (ex. "Man of the Woods," "Flannel," "Living off the Land").
Heartfelt storytelling is one of the principal attributes of Tennessee music, but the writing on Man of the Woods is dispassionate, when it's not vacuous. There's a number of songs about relishing in the nourishment and comforts of companionship, but they're sketched out with generality and objectivity. Even when seemingly specific details are mentioned (ex. "Higher, Higher," "Montana"), it's hard to believe there is a singular, significant person who was a muse for this material. The composition and vocal delivery also aren't particularly emotive. "Say Something" has a spurring presentation (mostly thanks to Stapleton), but its point is unclear. Is it about hesitancy in making a statement about the world, your life, or both? Is it 'none of the above?' Thorough sincerity and sweetness is found on the previously referenced "The Hard Stuff" and "Flannel" (despite its tropes), as well as "Young Man." The former two emphasize being unyielding and reliable as a romantic partner. The first verse of the lullaby-like "Flannel" is especially dear, as Timberlake sings of emulating the pure and steadfast love of a parent. "Young Man" is a 'father's advice' dedication to his toddler son, Silas. In order to take Timberlake seriously as someone whose matured enough to give counsel, you'd have to forget the boyish sexual depictions earlier on the record (ex. "Filthy," "Man of the Woods," "Supplies"). "What you gonna' do with all that meat? Cooking up a mean serving, huh?," he asks on "Filthy." *Rolls eyes* "Supplies" is an utterly stupid song, where apocalyptic survival skills are a metaphor for his qualities as a mate. Of course, he has to prop his cojones once more: "Flew in on a 3 AM just to show up and hear your sounds; the multiple times...you ain't had it that way, I can guarantee you that...I'll be the wood when you need heat." None of the other cuts are idiotic like that one, but many are very repetitive and a few are thin in meaning.
Man of the Woods is the first JT album that isn't predominately produced by Timbaland. The Neptunes lead this charge. The music is still sleek-sexy-funky-cool, but it's disconcerting that the only new thing they brought to the table was a big dose of...flatness. On most tracks, the rhythms just loop around after a while. A couple feature Timberlake's hallmark melodic switches, which liven things up (ex. Midnight Summer Jam).
Justin Timberlake wanted to show us the softer side of his Sears with this endeavor. However, the inattention to theme, lean lyrics and cyclic production worked against him. Instead of appearing humbled, relatable and affable, he comes off as unplugged and out-of-touch. Miley Cyrus' journey back home was more convincing.