Justin Timberlake is a performer. The caliber of performer is subjective — and everyone in the United States has an opinion after that Super Bowl halftime show — but he’s a performer before he’s an artist. Nothing showcases that more effectively than “Man in the Woods.” His new album is a half-hearted attempt to blend Americana with modern electronic production that, when combined with skin-deep lyricism and disenchanting songwriting, falls flat at best and furiously vexes at worst.
The lead single, “Filthy,” is named accordingly. It’s disgusting. It’s Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” multiplied by a thousand. It made me a little nauseous, both in its overblown, dizzying production and its almost aggressively smooth lyrics. This is the theme song for every entitled man that can’t take a hint. In fact, this entire album really can’t take a hint. Another track, “Supplies,” is almost painfully unaware of its own absurdity. This cut is probably one of the best examples of how “Man of the Woods” fails. This record tries to present itself as folksy and woodsy, but it is undermined by on-the-nose trap beats and an excessive amount of polished charisma. No one could believe Timberlake is a mountain man. We’re only led to believe he’s a Hollywood caricature of one. And, yes, I know he grew up in the South. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s lost touch with his roots.
This album’s lyrical content is just as grating as the music. “Say Something” just feels tone-deaf. “Everybody says ‘say something’/I don’t wanna get caught up in the rhythm of it” is the take none of us needed. You don’t want to say anything? Just don’t say anything. Don’t talk about how you’re not saying anything. That defies the whole point. “Higher, Higher” tries to cut deep, but try to find a more generic A-list lyric than “Stress is cruel, fame’s a lie/But you’re special, on every level.” There’s nothing more predictable about a famous person talking about how much fame sucks. It’s boring and tired and it’s representative of the rest of the album.
Despite its shortcomings, not all hope is lost for this album. “Morning Light” is a daybreak of quality on this album, with its sweet and tender melodies and a warm, soft instrumental bringing a touch of serenity and chivalry to the rest of the harsh, overbearing and otherwise brash tracklist. The same goes for “Flannel,” the most traditionally Americana song and the only one that Timberlake comes close to pulling the whole theme off on. It’s a good track until the melodramatic spoken-word cut-in. The blunt push of a forced, shoddy concept ruins an otherwise nice, slow jam.
Overall, “Man of the Woods” tries but doesn’t succeed. There are diamonds in the rough, but let me emphasize: there’s a lot of rough to be found in these 16 songs. “Man of the Woods” earns a C-. Whatever backwoods Timberlake has entered, let’s hope he finds his way out of them soon.