He’s no Michael Jackson. No Prince either, as the Super Bowl halftime show testified this year: the well-meaning tribute to the Purple One backfired, accidentally exposing the critical weakness of Timberlake’s performance, which featured too much dancing, and too little of his (admittedly limited) vocal chops. Posing for selfies mid-performance smacked of desperation, a marked contrast to the effortless majesty of Prince’s own performance back in 2007.
Yet despite these failings and many others – it’s hard to defend his reluctance to stand up for Janet Jackson following that other Super Bowl fiasco – Justin Timberlake remains a vital presence in the 21st century pop scene. His sweet falsetto, knowledgeable embrace of R&B, and crucial studio alliances with The Neptunes and especially Timbaland have led to his being accepted by almost everyone, from the raving Top 40 crowd to the coffee shop hipsters. Audacious and experimental, diving into beatboxing and world music alike with slick professionalism whilst also delivering the enormous hooks average pop consumers crave, Justified, FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experiment are classic cake-and-eat-’em albums. They want to sell millions of records, but they also want to be taken seriously.
Such naked ambition impressed a lot of people, and rightly so – “Senorita”, “Cry Me a River”, “Like I Love You”, “Rock Your Body”, and especially “My Love” are certifiable classics. They hold up brilliantly today: they don’t just make you want to sing along, they make you want to work out what the hell is going on, how on earth Timberlake and his chums could’ve gotten away with such bizarre concoctions of sounds. Like a lot of the best popular music from Louis Armstrong onwards, they somehow manage to sound instantly familiar and downright weird at the same time.
Yet without exception, every Timberlake album has been a mixed bag, with songs of extremely variable quality. And his latest, Man of the Woods, is no different.
The overall concept of the album was apparently “modern Americana with 808s”, and at times you can hear a sincere attempt to fuse Timberlake’s humble Tennessee origins with his current status as a futuristic pop star, by melding elements of country and contemporary R&B. It’s a typically ambitious idea, yet over the course of 65 minutes it becomes labored to the point of exhaustion, and the end result feels erratic and wildly uneven. Like Timberlake’s fashion choices.
Some of the experiments are exceptionally irritating: midway through the album comes the worst offenders, with “Wave” a disastrous mixture of acoustic reggae strumming layered on top of a strutting country bassline that sounds like it’s been imported from another planet, let alone another musical genre. Then “Supplies” comes lumbering in hot on its heels, sounding like a truly dreadful Migos pastiche. Together, they form the nadir of Timberlake’s career thus far, and are solid examples of how experimentation alone doesn’t make for a good record.
Yet the album is not as bad as an irritating, bewildering review over at Pitchfork suggests (since when was being “warm” a negative?). Its themes of familial dedication, to wife and child, are touching and feel genuine, for example. The persona of the “Man of the Woods” symbolises a return to Timberlake’s roots, in the form of a domesticated life with his family, and it would take a real asshole to begrudge him that happiness. Country music has always been great at illuminating the small joys of life, and here it serves as a grounding reminder that Timberlake’s a human being and not just a FutureSex God.
So the best moments are undoubtedly the ones that delve the most wholeheartedly into country music; they reveal new angles to the singer. “Man of the Woods” uses an unembarrassed steel guitar (anathema to some rock fans who stupidly dismiss country) up front in a song that sets out its message nice and clear: “I brag about you to anyone outside/But I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride”. “Say Something” combines forces with Nashville powerhouse Chris Stapleton for the most memorably anthemic chorus of the album. And unabashed country ballad “Flannel” has attracted some criticism for its “schmaltz”, but to my ears sounds a whole lot less schmaltzy than any of the ballads on his previous albums, and oh yes, it’s “warm” to boot.
If he’d had the temerity to go full country, Man of the Woods might have become a minor classic in the mold of Bob Dylan’s New Morning or Neil Young’s Harvest, a rootsy return to nature and a paean to rural Americana. Instead, Timberlake and his producers bottle it, trying to please everyone by stuffing in contemporary R&B elements that ironically make the album sound instantly dated. The sub-Prince funk of “Filthy” and “Midnight Summer Jam” just doesn’t jibe with the more traditional country moments, in a way that more care in programming or perhaps just better songwriting would’ve allowed for. After all, musicians have been melding country and R&B since at least Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds albums, so it can be done.
This time around Timberlake, The Neptunes and Timbaland don’t manage to have their cake or eat it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t morsels of goodness, crumbs of musical elation, for us to discover here.