By Chris Zuver, A&E Editor
It has been five years since we have had a Justin Timberlake album. Then suddenly, as of early February, he’s been back in the limelight. Having released an album and performed at the Super Bowl halftime show in a span of two days, JT has injected himself back into the zeitgeist with a vengeance in a time where the Bruno Mars’ of the world are dominating the pop category of music.
But upon listening to this album, it’s clear that while Timberlake still has his eye on relevance, he is not afraid to change things up and stick to elements that have worked for him in the past.
In February of 2017, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Timberlake said, in reference to his album while it was in the works: “It sounds more like where I’ve come from than any other music I’ve ever made… It’s Southern American music. But I want to make it sound modern—at least that’s the idea right now.”
In the months leading up to the release of the album, the media began to discuss the idea of Timberlake embracing country and southern music. This is understandable from a pop perspective, since pop and country usually only go together when a country performer embraces pop, not when a pop performer embraces country.
While this is not Timberlake’s strongest release to date, and there are only a few sparks of originality in the music, it is an interesting outing across a fine line between rural music, synthesizers, and 808s.
The opener and single “Filthy” starts off leaving the listener uncertain of where the music is heading. It starts with hard rock guitars with tom-heavy drums before breaking into a club beat full of sexual lyrics as Timberlake chants throughout: “Put your filthy hands all over me.”
The first portion of the album starts out party-ready, full of upbeat outings like “Sauce” where Timberlake sings in a Prince-like falsetto and “Midnight Summer Jam,” which came out a little too early for the summer, as most of us are probably bumping JT from a car with windows rolled up right now. Regardless, this shows us that Timberlake is confident that this album will sell in the long run.
Most of the first half of the album is filled with 808s and dance-friendly grooves with themes about partying and girls. However, there are some slow jams throughout, such as “Man of the Woods,” with its blues chord structure behind a snap-friendly club beat. Gospel backups are featured as well to add to that southern flare.
Timberlake shows his Dixie pride through not only traditional southern musical elements, but with modern aspects of “dirty south” hip hop. This can be heard through the trap and crunk echoes in the synthesizers and drum machines. It’s in the lyrics as well. In “Midnight Summer Jam,” Timberlake declares throughout: “Y’all can’t do better than this/Act like the south ain’t the shit.”
There are some forgettable moments, such as “Wave,” which starts with bluegrass guitar and drums before switching into a Caribbean groove. The song just doesn’t fit in and neither does the cliched message, which is a desire to get away from regular life and hang out on an island with a girl. That is not to say that there isn’t a degree of unoriginality in the other party songs, but this one sticks out with sores.
Halfway through the album, the tone bends toward a more serious air. Tracks eight and nine are duets with Alicia Keys and Chris Stapleton, respectfully. Both songs are done well and help shift the direction of the album.
As we cross into the second wave of the album, we are given “Flannel,” where Timberlake declares: “Right behind my left pocket/That is where you’ll feel my soul/It’s been with me many winters/It will keep you warm,” referencing his heart, as he reaches out to someone who has been hurt. The music is simultaneously low-key and alive with a strong 808 beat with synths and acoustic guitar to fill the instrumental space.
These later songs lack the modern bass-heavy rhythms, trading them in for more traditional 80s style disco beats instead. This is where JT comes out strong, with his strong neo soul vocals and harmonic production. There are a lot of echoes of Michael Jackson to be heard, but that is nothing new for Timberlake and it works in the end.
There are some great tracks here such as “Breeze Off the Pond,” which is simply well-written and curiously complex, as well as “Livin’ Off the Land.”
“The Hard Stuff,” features some of the best production and sounds like it could have been recorded ten or even twenty years ago. It comes across as one of the most heartfelt numbers on the record, as Timberlake sings about taking on the challenges of a relationship.
The album ends humbly with “Young Man,” which is dedicated to Timberlake’s son, Silas. It’s a laid back soulful song with a 90s hip hop beat where Timberlake gives advice to his son. He sings, “Young man/You’re gonna have to stand for something.” Overall, it’s a fitting end to an album.
It seems that the discussion of “Man of the Woods” in the media has been mostly focused on the theme of the album, rather than the content. Why has JT decided to embrace the culture of the rural south? To me, it seems that he’s trying to reach out to an audience that is more often in tune with southern rock and country music than anything else. As a pop performer, this seems to be a smart move, since it brings forth all of the positive elements of southern music.
All in all, it is not a bad album. Yet, I know the songs that stuck out to me most will not even get near the Billboard charts. However, looking at it in terms of creativity, there are a few moments that shine, and the more poppy songs, while not JT’s best, are certainly well thought-out and welcome in the catalogue.