Justin Timberlake’s new album ‘Man of the Woods’ is here (review, stream)
If you closely follow Music Twitter or read lots of music reviews, you probably already know that the consensus is that Man of the Woods is Justin Timberlake's first bad album (not counting the glorified b-sides collection The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2). It's been that way since before the first single even came out. Like with Taylor Swift last year, a lot of people want this to be the album where Justin fails. (Also like Taylor Swift, it's probably a shoe-in for People Magazine's year-end list.) It speaks to how we as music fans tend to go into Big Pop Albums either expecting to LOVE them, or HATE them, and then quickly grade them on a pass/fail rubric. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but with Man of the Woods, I'm going to at least try to avoid that.
Man of the Woods is definitely Justin Timberlake's worst album, but it's not a bad album. It's got a few truly terrible moments, but it's also got a few truly great moments. Most of it is just okay. And Justin was bound to make an album that's just okay eventually. His first three albums are three of the best albums in all of modern pop; there's the hits-filled Justified which took him from a loved-by-tweens boy bander to an "adult" artist, FutureSex/LoveSounds where he took on album oriented pop and longer songs and got cred from music snobs for doing so, and then The 20/20 Experience, where he took his album oriented pop in even more experimental directions and fit in perfectly with the "alt-R&B" boom of the time. For "indie" fans like me, it was a pretty great feeling that megastar Justin Timberlake was catering to my taste and writing songs like the James Blake-ish "Don't Hold the Wall" when he could've made a full album of surefire chart-toppers like "Can't Stop the Feeling." With Man of the Woods, Justin is still favoring artistic decisions over financial ones, but he just isn't catering to an "indie" audience anymore.
It's true what Justin said, Man of the Woods is not a country album -- it actually sounds a lot more like classic Justin Timberlake than you might expect from the title, the trailer, and the Chris Stapleton feature -- but it is more concerned with Americana, roots music, and guitars than he ever has been before. And for someone like me who didn't really hop on the JT bandwagon until he started writing songs like "LoveStoned," that's just not what I want from Justin and I'm not really sure he's even that good at it. But I get what he's trying to do and sometimes it works out better than I thought it would. He opens the album with "Filthy," which is one of Man of the Woods' best songs. It opens with a neo-funk rock intro that sounds somewhere between Anderson .Paak and Pharrell (Pharrell actually didn't have a hand in this song, but for the first time in JT's career, almost every song on the album was co-written and co-produced by The Neptunes), and then it goes into a thick, dirty Timbaland/Danja bassline that would've worked on any previous Justin Timberlake album. From "Filthy," Justin kinda eases you in to his "modern Americana with 808s" approach. Second track "Midnight Summer Jam" starts out as another groovy, classic-JT style song, and eventually it mixes in bluesy harmonica in a way that works out shockingly well. He goes even deeper into Americana but still retains a little of his classic sound with the likable blues rock of "Sauce," and then the subsequent title track is where he goes off the deep end. It's the album's first truly bad song, one that attempts to combine folk and pop but ends up sounding like the Steve Miller Band.
The rest of the album is a mixed bag, bouncing back and forth between "Filthy"-type songs and "Man of the Woods"-type songs, and finding tons of middle ground. The worst offender is probably "Flannel." Aside from its on-the-nose song title, it's a lullaby-ish folk song that makes Mumford & Sons sound edgy. And the best is probably "Montana," a hidden gem of psychedelic R&B where Justin proves he can pull off futuristic pop with The Neptunes almost as well as he can with Timbaland. Other highlights include the shiny synthpop of "Breeze Off the Pond" and the hip hop-tinged second single "Supplies." Even on some of the so/so songs like "Higher Higher" and "Livin' Off the Land," Justin is usually sticking to the airy vocal approach that helped give The 20/20 Experience its "alt" prefix, making those a little more digestible for non-radio-listeners than the polished reggae/blues rock of Alicia Keys collab "Morning Light" or the twangy, cheesy ballad "The Hard Stuff."
The bright side is that it really seems like Justin made exactly the album that he wanted to make at this point in his career. The downside is just that it's not immediately clear who else besides Justin Timberlake wanted him to make this album. Aside from Kanye West and Beyonce, there really isn't anyone else who's been as dominant in both popularity and forward-thinking, innovative music in the past 15 years as Justin Timberlake. (And for what it's worth, Beyonce did the Americana meets pop/R&B thing way better on Lemonade's Jack White-featuring "Don't Hurt Yourself.") To see him continuing to take risks and possibly fail completely is still more exciting than seeing him plateau or get redundant. I don't think it's a failure -- more a misstep with a few jams -- But if most end up disagreeing, at least he struck out swinging.