Cleveland, Ohio — For anyone not in the know watching the Super Bowl halftime show, there was a reason why Justin Timberlake sported a bandanna, a camouflage blazer and a landscape-inspired suit in what can be mildly stated as an odd fashion choice. And it wasn’t because he had to raid the wardrobe closet for the CMT awards before getting on stage.
Timberlake’s latest album, “Man of the Woods”— released Feb. 2 — has been marketed as a self-proclaimed “personal” project and a new direction for the singer. Timberlake himself touted it as “modern Americana with 808s.” After a couple full listens to the album I can safely that’s true — for about half of it. Quite a few of the songs in “Man of the Woods”— including its title track — do echo this statement, sounding like a reimaging of Justin’s style in a different key, with bits of country, bluegrass and even bits of island and funk with, of course, the polish and production of frequent collaborators Timbaland and The Neptunes.
Speaking of the titular track, Chris Stapleton, who also performs a duet with Timberlake later on in the album in “Say Something”, co-wrote this number. “Man of the Woods” has a swinging doo-wop vibe, and it’s very sing-songy. I personally would love to hear an acapella version of the song, as few pop singers can harmonize with themselves quite like Timberlake, in a backup vocal riff reminiscent to *NSYNC’s “Girlfriend.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a single, as this song encapsulates his new direction as he states it pretty well. It feels like how Justin Timberlake would approach a country song, with a hint of soul and a bit of funk added in for good measure.
As for the singles from this album, it’s more of a mixed bag. “Filthy,” the single he performed at the Super Bowl, is more than slightly reminiscent to “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” with some dubstep “wubs” that get to be a little much, making me think this song was recorded in 2008 instead of 2018. It’s a really cool music video, though, to his credit. The song is catchy but nothing that really sticks out as really memorable, aside from the repeated phrases.
Justin’s second single, “Supplies,” is closer to his early career stylings, minimalist but not in a bad way, with decent atmospheric elements and almost haunting backbeats. The guitars really bring this one together and keeps it from having so much of a gap between the bass and Justin’s voice. It’s not terrible, but like “Filthy” is a tonal departure from the album’s main purpose.
Further justifying the wardrobe change for Timberlake is “Say Something”, his aforementioned collaboration with modern country mainstay Chris Stapleton. It’s a feel-good track, and Stapleton and Timberlake mesh well and sound great together. I can consider this really good driving music. It’s middle-of-the-road pop/country fusion, but this is how to do it right.
The album has its duds, though. “Midsummer Summer Jam” is jarring as the album’s second track, with annoying backup vocals and “Thunder” levels of repetition. It’s got a lot of pep without the payoff. It also never slows down and takes a second to breathe — and it’s five minutes long. They could have cut this song by a minute or two and it would have still been a little too bouncy.
Appearing right after this track, “Sauce” is a rather large tonal departure from the rest of the album — funky but with nothing of substance. The lyrical flow is fine but the lyrics themselves are nonsensical in many instances.
Then there’s “Wave,” which I dare call incessantly repetitive as well as a little too upbeat. It’s got this jumpy rhythm and it’s a little unsettling hearing what sounds like Timberlake singing along to a bad royalty-free track he found online.
However, wedged between “Sauce” and “Wave” is “Higher Higher,” probably the highest point of the album. Timberlake flaunts his charm flawlessly on this lush, pseudo-1970’s track. It mirrors “Rock Your Body” in terms of its flow, with crisp percussion to match. I really want this to be a single.
“Breeze Off the Pond” is another high point, despite some odd rhyming decisions. Nonetheless, it’s a summery track with glittery acoustic guitars, similar to Lauv’s “Paris in the Rain” and Childish Gambino’s “Kauai.” Justin feels in his element here with this island-y track. Very tight production here.
“Young Man”, the last track on the album, is another early career flashback, with swaggery guitar and catchy lyrics as Timberlake directly addresses his son. It’s a touching little number to cap off the album.
Much like Justin’s previous album five years prior, “Man of the Woods” shares some elements from “The 20/20 Experience” thankfully scaled back, with interludes and outro to songs guest starring his bandmates and his wife Jessica Biel.
Somewhere between the musical innovation of “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and the more ‘artiste’ approach of “20/20”, “Man of the Woods” finds a suitable middle ground in Timberlake’s discography. Not his best work — far from his worst — and with enough high points to counter the low. If you’re already a fan of Timberlake— especially his earlier material— you should have fun with this album.