Has a pop megastar ever released such a noncommittal shrug of an album? It’s been five years since Justin Timberlake released the two-album respectability volley The 20/20 Experience, and Timberlake has absolutely not spent his sabbatical refining his artistic voice or figuring out new directions in which to push his sound. Instead, he’s been taking supporting roles in vaguely prestige-y movies, playing in celebrity golf tournaments, and, most crucially, raising a kid. He has treated pop stardom as a job that he’s a bit sick of, that he’s maybe mostly grown out of. Fair enough! Pop stardom seems exhausting! With his reemergence, Timberlake has concocted a woodsy, outdoorsy image-makeover while resisting the idea that he’s made a country album. And he hasn’t made a country album. Instead, he’s gotten back together with his old collaborators and made a record almost entirely devoid of purpose or urgency. Man Of The Woods plays as an hour-long contented sigh, a born-entertainer cheeseball doing his very best to make his transition into rural-dad middle age.
When Timberlake first linked up with Timbaland and the Neptunes for his solo debut, Justified, it was a canny move, and a risky one. Desperate to distance himself from his boy-band roots, Timberlake put himself in the hands of the producers who were turning rap radio into a zone of playful, forward-looking experimentalism. The Neptunes gave Timberlake the Michael Jackson records that Jackson himself had unwisely rejected, building him into a futuristic polymath pop star. Timbaland built Timberlake the sputtering symphony “Cry Me A River,” giving Timberlake a chance to turn his own tabloid-gossip profile into grand, operatic pathos. When Timberlake and Timbaland reunited for FutureSex/LoveSounds a few years later, they put together a liquid opus of sci-fi cocaine-disco. But Tim and the Neptunes both eventually ran out of ideas; the best Pharrell track out there is an unused decade-old beat that Pharrell gifted to the Migos. And Timberlake ran out of ideas, too, unless “make a regular Neptunes beat, but with acoustic guitars or maybe harmonica” counts as an idea.
Man Of The Woods isn’t really an album about the outdoors; it’s an album about escape, about retreat. Timberlake wants us to know how much he loves his wife and his son, an admirable impulse that Timberlake certainly could turn into compelling art if he found the right way to address it. The outdoorsy theme is a motif, but it’s not what dominates the album. Instead, when Timberlake sings about Montana on “Montana,” it’s simply a place to get away, to be completely alone with someone you love. (When you’re as galactically famous as Timberlake and his wife Jessica Biel are, you apparently need wide-open farmland to get that kind of privacy.) “Wave” is literally just a song about going on vacation, visiting someplace with “the dreamiest weather.” Elsewhere, he repeatedly paints pictures of domestic bliss: “We’re canoeing stoned, as ‘Tiny Dancer’ plays.” If Timberlake’s first two records were about losing yourself on the dancefloor, Man Of The Woods is about losing yourself in family-life tranquility.
But then, Timberlake is an entertainer too hammy and eager to please to leave the dancefloor entirely behind. The early advertising for the album might’ve suggested that he’d gone full Bon Iver, but Timberlake’s not the type to ever let that happen. And it’s not like he really says much of anything on Man Of The Woods. Instead, his creamy falsetto mostly just fills spaces. The voice is buried way deeper in the mix than it has been on any previous Timberlake album — or, for that matter, on any album from a star of Timberlake’s stature. And his lyrics are strictly first-draft material. On paper, they can be downright embarrassing. Here, for instance, is Timberlake remembering falling in love: “I might as well have been some butter / Melting all over, girl, what?” Or here’s Timberlake romanticizing the South: “All of the locals are happy to get out and meet a new face / We dance in circles, on and on, dosey-do and then we sway.” Give Timberlake credit: You have to have insane levels of swagger to even attempt to sing lyrics that dumb.
Musically, other than the gloopy cocktail-bar ska of “Waves,” there’s nothing truly objectionable on Man Of The Woods. Timbaland and the Neptunes have both toyed around with roots-music sounds before — Timbaland on Bubba Sparxxx’s cultishly beloved gutbucket rap album Deliverance, Pharrell when he teamed up with pop-country heavyweights Little Big Town on their Wanderlust album. And the sound of Man Of The Woods is mostly just a slightly more down-home take on their usual late-period shiny funk. The title track has chicken-scratch guitars over pings and whistles. “Flannel” is genuinely lovely organ-soaked soul with a few Neptunes bass-burps deep in the mix. “Livin’ Off The Land” is a duet between MPC hiccups and acoustic guitars. Those tracks do interesting things, but they never seize the imagination the way so many of Timberlake’s past Timbaland and Neptunes collabs have done. They’re laid-back by design, and maybe that’s the problem. There’s nothing at stake. Even “Young Man,” Timberlake’s emotional love song to his son, is a fireside amble that never aims to be anything more than pleasant.
There’s really only one moment on all of Man Of The Woods where it feels like something’s at stake, and that’s when country star Chris Stapleton yanks the spotlight away from Timberlake on their duet “Say Something.” Stapleton is an interesting case: a scraggly traditionalist type who ascended to Nashville stardom partly because of a couple of CMA Awards performances where he sang with Timberlake and brought the house down. On “Say Something,” Stapleton is more on Timberlake’s turf than vice versa, but Stapleton sings like he’s trying to flip a truck over with the sheer force of his voice. Stapleton is a big star now, but he still sounds hungry. Timberlake hasn’t sounded hungry in more than a decade. Man Of The Woods is a supremely satisfied album, and it’s hard to get excited about that, even if you’re Justin Timberlake.
Man Of The Woods is out now on RCA.