It was 2016 when Justin Timblerake first spoke of recording a new album inspired by his home state of Tennessee, as well as blues, bluegrass and country music. Timberlake’s desire to return to a more homespun sound was not unusual. In the last few years, similarly pop-oriented stars such as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga have recorded albums heavily influenced by country music, both Younger Now and Joanne forgoing big pop choruses in favour of something a little more homely. But the results were not promising; each record the weakest of both stars’ careers to date. When Justin Timberlake declared his intention to take a similar path, many were understandably dubious.
And they were right to be. On Man Of The Woods, Timberlake’s fifth studio album, the Tennessee native combines cack-handed country pastiche with tuneless RnB. When Timberlake described his intention of creating Southern American music with a modern twist, few could have imagined the garish Frankenstein genre he’d go on to engineer.
In the run up to the album’s release, Timberlake debuted three singles in quick succession. The quickfire nature of their release, spaffed out every other week before they could make much impact, suggested Timberlake was keen to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible, almost as though he knew his latest material was destined to crash and burn. But then Timberlake has never been known for his self-awareness, as Man Of The Woods demonstrates.
On the album’s first single, the clumsy ‘Filthy‘, Timberlake tries to reinstate his sex symbol status to disastrous effect. Singing over a grating throbbing bassline, Timberlake asks “What you gonna do with all that meat?”, in what is only the album’s second most gruesome lyric. The top prize goes to the stomach-churning “I love your pink / You like my purple,” from ‘Sauce’, another dud that sees Timberlake try and fashion himself as a heartthrob rockabilly star. But for all his attempts at being sexy, Timberlake falls flat on his face again and again, sounding weedy and lascivious, a far cry from the confident lothario of ‘Sexyback’.
When Timberlake isn’t playing the perv, he’s taking a different tact, trying his luck with slower, more traditional love songs. The best of these is ‘Higher Higher’, a track that finds its groove early on, Timberlake returning to the high-pitched croon we remember from the likes of ‘What Goes Around’. But elsewhere, he’s at sea, out of his depth on the likes of ‘Say Something‘, a duet with Chris Stapleton, allowing the bona fide country star to take the lead while he shrinks into the shadows.
With the likes of Pharrell Williams and Timbaland on production duties, Man Of The Woods should be a walk in the park, a stylish, easy-flowing breeze through a score of slick and succinct bangers. Instead, we end up with a hammy collection of country parodies. Some respite comes with ‘Supplies‘, a return to the Timberlake sound of the late noughties that sees him on more familiar territory. But with its clipped beat and Timberlake’s electronic vocals, it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst tracks striving for something folksier.
There are times when Timberlake transcends the boundary between not being very good and being downright hilarious. ‘Flannel’ is a tone-deaf ode to – you guessed it – flannel, though with its childish lullaby lyrics it’s perhaps also the purest love song on the whole album. Elsewhere, the otherwise half-decent ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ is made ridiculous by Timberlake’s frequent shout-outs to the South, reminding us of his origins at every opportunity. It reeks of overcompensation, Timberlake’s near-constant reminders of his birthplace only making the harmonica-featuring, on-the-nose hoedown all the more daft.
There’s no doubt Man Of The Woods is a wild misstep for Timberlake, his heavy-handed, chauvinistic blues-rock stumbling over itself to declare its own authenticity, but failing to offer anything authentic in return. Man Of The Woods is a record of misguided pastiches, the bulk of the tracks aiming for something earthy and homegrown but ending up sounding muddled and derivative. Rather than achieve his mission statement of putting a modern spin on the country and blues sound of his native Tennessee, Timberlake has bastardised the genre, creating something that is neither modern, country or – most importantly – any good.