A note appeared at the top of my email box on Friday, from Justin Timberlake, via Live Nation, 'cause yeah, Timberlake is one of those all-inclusive 360-deal guys, meaning his touring, promotion, and marketing are all handled by Live Nation, and the company gets a cut of whatever action the guy generates.
"This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any other album I’ve written, where I’m from. And it’s personal." Below the quote was a link to "Get tickets to see the 'Man of the Woods Tour' now!' a teaser of tunes from the new album of the same name, and a reminder that Timberlake will be performing at the Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 4.
As confusing and conflicting as this imagery is, Timberlake has been "getting it together in the country, man." His first full album of new material since 2013's uber-successful "The 20/20 Experience," is meant to represent the humble earthiness from whence he came (Nashville by birth, Montana ranch-land by rich guy choice) and to which, it seems, he has been eager to return.
In advance of this week's release date, the social media ether has been buzzing with snarky skepticism, as the whole "Man of the Woods" branding campaign suggested the one-time inheritor of Michael Jackson's Pop King crown had taken to frolicking in fields like some strange cross between the Marlboro man and a hipster lumbersexual. That the music, as represented by first single "Filthy," really didn’t match the loamy rootsiness suggested by the image-spinning muddied the waters further. The takeaway: Timberlake had done gone and lost his mind.
Once you dig into "Man of the Woods" and let its sometimes confusing attempts to marry country, pop, R&B and dance music worm their way into your ear canals, if never really your heart, you realize that this is far more a case of ritzy dude ranch "glamping" than a trip to a no-frills cabin in the middle of nowhere. More Hannah Montana than the Band's "Music from Big Pink," the album boasts some surprisingly cringe-worthy lyrics and a handful songs that sound cobbled together from the wreckage resulting from a car crash involving one of those limo-sized SUVs and Toby Keith's pickup truck - Armani, designer sunglasses, a busted gun rack and empty PBR cans littering the highway while the limo's sound system continues to blast out 808-laced beats.
Sound enticing? No?
Happily, "Man of the Woods" is front-loaded with some absolutely killer funk jams, a mélange of Michael Jackson and Prince tropes and the dry, tight and in-your-face production favored by the Neptunes, whose credits include the majority of the album's strongest tunes. "Filthy" moves across the dance floor on a sultry, deep-pocket bass line; "Midnight Summer Jam" brings in modern hip-hop influences, but settles nicely into a Jamiroquai-meets-Childish Gambino, falsetto-led hook; "Sauce" delivers a filthy mix of fuzzed-out guitars and funky stabs, and Timberlake absolutely owns it here, moving like a boss across the Prince-like terrain.
The first cracks appear during the title tune, which attempts to marry country filigree – pedal steel guitar, primarily – to dance-pop drum machine figures, with middling results. The stop-start, hiccuping rhythm is a bit confusing, and lends the tune a feeling of incompleteness. Still, Timberlake layers his vocals in a hyper-creative manner, and his singing is flawless, rich and soulful.
Later, "Wave" offers breezy tropicalia, but little else. "Supplies," which sounds like an unholy Migos/NSYNC mash-up, takes 4 minutes of your life, and when it ends, you'll wish you had those 4 minutes back. Timberlake should steer well clear of trap music in the future. It's not a good look for him.
The overt references to country music and Timberlake's native South feel forced and arbitrary, for the most part. It's hard to avoid the feeling that he's laying it all on a bit thick, as if he came up with the record's concept and then found it necessary to force that concept onto songs that can't support it and don’t really deserve it. It all feels just plain goofy in its worst moments, which are littered throughout the record's back half like random cattle droppings in a field.
Whittle the country boy conceits away, however, and you've got some prime Timberlake. "Man of the Woods" is a record that would be much stronger if it was considerably shorter, and concentrated on the kind of material that serves Timberlake best – funk, in a word. Within that framework, Timberlake remains one of the most creative artists going. He may love the country, but his strongest music clearly hails from the city.