Justin Timberlake is frustrating.
By most measures, he is one of the greatest pop stars of our time. Top 40 still reverberates with remnants of 2006’s game-changing LP FutureSex/LoveSounds. He is a dynamic performer, in the mold of the all-time greats. Accusations of cultural appropriation and how he abandoned Janet Jackson after that Super Bowl controversy aside, he is universally well-liked by the masses, accessible to more audiences than any of his contemporaries or successors.
And yet, despite his impressive accomplishments and effortless talent, Justin Timberlake seems increasingly disinterested in being the closest thing we will have to another King of Pop. The idea set in when reports claimed that Timberlake was effectively blackmailed into 2013’s The 20/20 Experience by Live Nation to fulfill his contract. 20/20, while a smash success, was notable for its similarities to FutureSex; from the quirky Timbaland beats to the indulgently long track lengths, Timberlake made little effort to expand or explore beyond what worked seven years prior. As quickly as he reclaimed his spot atop the charts, he abdicated it, going back into musical hibernation in pursuit of side projects like voice-acting in The Trolls and supervising its soundtrack (ironically, it scored him his biggest pop hit ever with “Can’t Stop The Feeling” and a Best Original Song Oscar nomination).
Now, five years after 20/20, Timberlake returns with Man of the Woods, an album that initially suggested the most significant musical shift of his career. The album’s title, artwork and teaser video all favored a rustic, earthy aesthetic, quickly interpreted as “country” by the masses. It would’ve been a huge power move for the singer, a hard rejection of the pop landscape’s current obsession with hip-hop and EDM. The genuinely exciting possibilities were endless, and quickly dampened with the release of “Filthy” as the lead single. The shamelessly derivative rehash of “SexyBack” was a huge disappointment that set up the album’s rollout as a Trojan horse for yet-another FutureSex retread.
Doubts about Timberlake’s artistic growth and authenticity cast a pall over Man of the Woods. The comparisons begin immediately; album opener “Filthy” leads into “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Sauce”, two stunted party starters that recall 20/20′s funkiest moments. The direct references to Timberlake’s past pretty much end there, but the structural influences are undeniable. Even though the 16 tracks are significantly shorter than his previous albums, Man of the Woods feels just as long. The songs collectively lack a sense of urgency, and Timberlake sounds like he’s strolling through his tracklist without any real intent or purpose. He admits to as much on “Say Something,” his standout duet with country superstar Chris Stapleton, where he insists that silence is an adequate replacement for taking a stand. Timberlake isn’t breaking any new lyrical ground here; he’s deploys the same cocky come-ons and alpha male boasting that his youth made easier to swallow. Now, it just sounds like he has left nothing to say, coasting by on toothless lines that he would’ve balked at ten years ago.
Man of the Woods’ lax construction, and its frequent past references, makes it difficult for the songs to stand on their own. “Higher Higher” is a near-highlight that’s swallowed up by the folksy midtempo title track and the bouncy but forgettable “Wave”. The second half of the album fares slightly better, thanks in large part to “Say Something”. Besides being an excellent showcase for Stapleton’s soulful stylings, the song offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the album could’ve been: a smart blend of country acoustics and Timberlake’s usually spot-on rhythmic sensibilities. “Montana” and “Breeze Off The Pond”, with their pulsing, guitar-laced disco grooves, simmer with the same unfulfilled potential. What we end up with is a hodge-podge of recycled production and half-hearted stabs at musical progress that are truly disheartening to hear. It’s easy to blame the album’s muddiness on longtime collaborators Timbaland and The Neptunes, but that would absolve Timberlake of any responsibility (and he’s had enough of that).
Man of the Woods is full of missed opportunities and false starts, conceived by someone thoroughly disinterested in making pop music. Had he actually tried, this album could’ve been both a fresh start and an affirmation of his status as his generation’s foremost pop star. Instead, Man of the Woods is a meandering, self-indulgent, ultimately useless album that stains a once-sterling pop career. If Justin Timberlake wants to leave music for good and focus on being a just-passable actor or clothing designer or permanent Saturday Night Live guest host, fine. Pop music will survive just fine without him. However, his fans, and his legacy, deserve a better farewell than this.