Since his debut solo album, Justin Timberlake has performed a feat that few artists successfully achieve: making us feel like he is lifting the curtain onto his private life. On his new album Man of the Woods, out Friday, life, and manhood are a journey that Timberlake goes on, while the listener is along for the ride. Even the sequencing of it, from the lead track, "Filthy," in which he still has friends who party until six in the morning, to the closer, "Young Man," which is all-consumed with his young son. It's a trip from living in a self-obsessed present to one where all you care about is making a nice future for the next generation. For listeners not particularly interested in Timberlake's worldview or the ways that parenthood change a person, it is a long listen at 16 tracks. For fans, this is that glimpse behind the curtain they crave.
If "Filthy" feels regressive, it may be because it is one of a handful of tracks produced by JT's longtime collaborator, Timbaland — something one might easily divine from the distinctive vocal patterns that mimic Timbaland's own or the beats that are slightly higher pitched and more infused with vibrato than most beat makers today prefer. It's a classic sounding song because it has to be, although it boggles the mind that it was released as the lead single. Timbaland's fingers are also on "Sauce," which is a bit of a throwaway; "Say Something," where the presence of Chris Stapleton seems to throw Timbaland out of his usual bag of tricks and force some newness out; and on the closing track. The majority of the rest of the album was produced by The Neptunes, whose imaginations seem endless and playful enough to encompass the full rainbow of styles Timberlake's songs explore on the album. A few tracks, including his collaboration with Alicia Keys on "Morning Light," are self-produced with Rob Knox.
There was much debate about how Mumford & Sons/O Brother Where Art Thou? this album would get after Timberlake debuted its teaser trailer, but when the first two singles ("Filthy" and "Supplies") were the straight-ahead dance pop we expected, it was assumed that Timberlake didn't go full Montana — or even Tennessee. But there are strong country moments here, daringly on songs not involving Stapleton, who plays guitar on multiple songs. Perhaps the most clumsily handled is the Neptunes-helmed title track, which purports to be a song about being in love with his wife (credited for her spoken-word appearances here as Jessica Timberlake, by the way) but puts him at the centre of each chorus. Some of the musical choices made, particularly on that song, are a strong argument for people who don't authentically live a country music lifestyle to stay in their own lane.
The key to understanding why this feels like cultural tourism may come in Timberlake's interview with Zane Lowe for Beats 1. He told Lowe that all of his records before were "aspiration," either to a lifestyle or for him to "pay homage to my influences." When you dabble in country or Americana but don't have influences in mind to pay homage to, things are going to get weird.
However, other tracks with a country-infused vibe, most often due to the instrument selection, are believable. That may not sound like a nice description, but in country music authenticity is everything, so Timberlake's ability to sell it is necessary. "Flannel" does the best job of getting under the skin of what is country, in part because the "behind my left pocket" lyric (a reference to his heart) echoes a lyric in Stapleton's breakout single "Traveller," where he sings "I'm just a traveler on this earth / Sure as my heart's behind the pocket of my shirt." The familiar imagery paired with classic Irish music, one of the roots of hillbilly and bluegrass, makes this the most rooted in actual country track (and gives it a little bit of a holiday feel). "Livin' Off the Land," on the other hand, may be the most disingenuous song here. There is no way in hell the Timberlakes have backed up bills on their credit cards. It feels like the tiresome parade of articles after the Trump election lamenting the position of coal miners and the white working class put into song form.
Though "Montana" is enjoyable, and the most recognisably Neptunes-esque track, I would like to know why a song that sounds so much like California got named for a mining state. It is one of many musical contradictions on an album that wants to be about real, adult life but can't leave the beats alone.
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