“I brag about you to anyone outside,” sings Justin Timberlake over a faux-folksy Neptunes instrumental on the titular track of his fifth studio album. “But I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride.”
Though he was born in the nature of Tennessee, Timberlake’s fame — unlike Thoreau or even Bunyan — has nothing to do with his prowess as an outdoorsman. Instead, the sexy, showman talent of the Mousketeer/actor/singer/dancer/one half of the greatest double-denim outfit match in history has placed J.T. in the national spotlight since birth. On the misguided and oft-cringeworthy Man of the Woods, Timberlake’s first studio album since 2013’s two-part The 20/20 Experience, a man who just spent $20 million to move into Tribeca’s urban utopia postures as nothing more than a humble, southern dad.
With 16 songs running for a rather risk-averse hour and five minutes, Man of the Woods‘ few bright spots are lost in a tracklist as dragging and congested as Los Angeles traffic. “Filthy,” the album’s opener and its best and most daring track, sounds like a spiritual successor to Timberlake’s iconic “SexyBack” over Timbaland production (show some love if you are also just realizing that the Timberlake/Timbaland duo both have names that basically begin with Timber and end with a geographical feature).
“I said, ‘Put your filthy hands all over me,'” sings Timberlake over a beat that sounds half like an instrumental and half like robots making sweet, sweet love. “You know this ain’t the clean version.”
Despite Timberlake’s insistence, Man of the Woods comes off much like a diluted, clean version of his usually experimental and genre-shaping discography. He uses Pharrell and Chad Hugo production on “Supplies” to mainly chant the song’s title in the most annoying possible form (“Supp-lie-eye-eyes!!!!!!!”). “The Hard Stuff,” in which Timberlake begs for, yes, the hard stuff, is the album’s most tranquilized track. “Livin’ Off the Land,” another Neptunes instrumental, sounds like a Justin Timberlake-written outtake from Fiddler on the Roof.
“I’m just one man doing the best that I can,” sings Timberlake on an album in which he is most certainly not doing the best that he can. “Saint or a sinner, the loser can be a winner with a plan/ When you’re living off the land.”
“Young Man,” the last song on Man of the Woods, introduces the album’s inspiration. Silas Timberlake, the 2-year-old son of J.T. and actress Jessica Biel, offers an adorable cameo.
“Da-da,” says Silas, repeating after Justin.
Unfortunately for Da-da, Silas’ two-line intro is the album’s brightest highlight. A rare misstep in an already legendary career, Man of the Woods shows not Timberlake’s retreat from the city but instead his increasing isolation from the wants of its masses.
One and a half stars