Justin Timberlake tries to get *NSYNC with his southern heritage
The Santa Clara
February 8, 2018
Consider flannel. Soft, warm. Gently evocative of a rugged, long-extinct lifestyle. Flannel suggests a certain air of masculinity and utilitarianism. Nowadays you don’t have to be a lumberjack to rock Pendleton. Flannel has been embraced, with varying degrees of obnoxiousness, by the beer bar crowd, selfdescribed Starbucks addicts and indie rockers. And, now, Justin Timberlake.
“Man of the Woods,” the newest release from America’s preferred perennial performer, cites flannel, not the actual woods, as a major inspiration. I can’t help but be underwhelmed. Naturally, “Man of the Woods” is about as authentic as a stick of Old Spice and possesses as much insight as a graphic tee from Target.
Timberlake on this project comfortably avoids engaging with nature, and, consequently, toes around its accompanying life-affirming values like vulnerability and awe. Despite the lofty intentions of its creator, “Man of the Woods” barely scratches the surface of the talking points it introduces and serves the commercial over the personal on every turn.
Ostensibly a hark back to Timberlake’s Memphis roots—“It’s Southern music,” he asserts in a recent Hollywood Reporter profile—the new album is more of the same from Timberlake. Even on the one song with clear country influence, a duet with Chris Stapleton, Timberlake’s songwriting remains within the obnoxious bounds of platitude.
“Sometimes,” he philosophizes on “Say Something,” “the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” It becomes abundantly clear that Timberlake’s “inspirations”—his son, wife, and family were directly acknowledged in a video announcement earlier last week—are simply templated PR moves (or else woefully underserved by this work).
Despite a rugged rebrand, his sound has not distinctly progressed since his last album, part two of “The 20/20 Experience.” While the decadent fantasies that defined “20/20” have been replaced with more elemental values, Timberlake’s wealthy perspective and programmed approach to the songs themselves remains.
The resultant album is a confused, hollow document that doesn’t delve into the intimacies of an artist’s new fatherly and calm outlook as much as it reveals the machinations of a broken music industry that can no longer equate pop singles with creative legacy. The effortless cool and funky energy that drives his most vital music has definitely dwindled with age and is stretched thin on “Man of the Woods.”
It seems that Timberlake has grown comfortable, like his contemporary Pharrell (who lends production credits on this album), in his new position as pop’s grandfather. In other words, these two artists now treat their music as careful investments: instrumentals and hooks are focus-grouped until their fresh edges are sanded away. Declarative statements or anything that could be controversial are immediately trimmed and sales are king.
If you, like me, enjoy Justin Timberlake’s music for its epic scale, opulent textures and infectious delivery, you will be thoroughly disappointed on two fronts—after repeated listens for the purpose of this review, I regrettably can’t get it out of my head.
If you, however, are more a fan of Timberlake’s work on the Oscar-nominated “Trolls” theme song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” I cannot recommend this album enough. Besides that childish trifle, “Man on the Woods” also recalls Disney Channel Original soundtracks (“Supplies”), Target ads (“Flannel”) and whitewashed hip-hop (“Midsummer Night Jam”). It is a record so sickeningly sweet I would equate listening to it in one sitting to eating a bag of Laffy Taffys in the same amount of time.
Timberlake’s album release victory lap at the Super Bowl Halftime Show this past weekend only highlighted my complaints in this article. His swooning stage presence, almost two decades removed from his first pelvic thrusts, now reads as stale and soulless. Even bonafide Timberlake classics like “Rock Your Body” and “Cry Me A River” rang flat in the context of awkward “Man of the Woods” cuts.
It seems now like it’s time for JT to take the back seat. It’s time to join the legions of bygone legends who create sensation through reunion tours, sponsorships, book deals and documentary features.
Maybe it’s because he lost all his former flair. Maybe it’s because he became lazy with this project. Or maybe now we can just tell he’s faking it.
Contact Peter Schutz at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.