Justin Timberlake sure likes to make fans wait between records. The multi-talented artist isn’t one to push out a record every year and it’s actually been 5 years since he delivered the two-part album The 20/20 Experience. In 16 years, Timberlake has only released three studio albums (if you consider The 20/20 Experience as one album) so it’s with baited breath that fans anticipated his fourth studio album Man of the Woods.
In the weeks leading up to the album’s release Timberlake promised his ‘most personal’ album to date and a teaser video that showed him getting back to nature hinted at a change in direction. The buzz hit fever pitch ahead of the release of the project’s lead single Filthy but when the single dropped it got a very mixed reception. Instead of the Country-leaning, personal track everyone had been led to expect, Filthy was actually an empty uptempo dance song with a video featuring a robot doing various sexual things with scantily clad dancers.
Many were quick to hail it as SexyBack Part II but there was no disguising the fact that it didn’t get the reception people were expecting. The next track Supplies was a similar disappointment and it wasn’t until third track Say Something with Chris Stapleton did any of Timberlake’s teasing hold true. Of the three tracks released prior to the album, that’s the one that hit the mark and it signifies what Man of the Woods could have been.
Following similar disastrous attempts by Britney Spears (2013’s Britney Jean) and Katy Perry (2017’s Witness) you’d think that pop stars would learn about building expectation around something that isn’t true. Spears claimed Britney Jean was her most personal album yet then launched the derided project with Work Bitch whereas Katy Perry claimed to be ‘woke’ and making ‘purposeful pop’, which was quickly derailed by Bon Appetit, essentially an ode to oral sex.
The thing is, Man of the Woods isn’t a disaster for Timberlake at all – it was just very clumsily marketed. The album does jar in places as Timberlake’s signature sound, helmed by Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Danja, is present throughout but there are glimpses of a more mature artist in the mix too. Timberlake explains the title of the album Man of the Woods as the definition of his son Silas’ name and expressed through social media that he wasn’t making a Country record.
The record opens with Filthy and honestly it’s one of the weakest tracks on the record. There’s nothing about the track that we haven’t heard before but if it came on in a club, I’m pretty sure I’d be shaking my ass off dancing to it. Things pick up with Midnight Summer Jam, despite a few clumsy lyrics, and it’s a solid collaboration with The Neptunes. It’s still not quite that personal feel we’d been led to expect though.
The first real moment comes on title track Man of the Woods, which was written about Timberlake’s wife Jessica Biel. The Neptunes production is really interesting combining electro-beats with a soulful feel. Another great moment is Morning Light featuring Alicia Keys and co-written by Chris Stapleton. It’s got a more organic and natural feel, which suits Timberlake and moves his sound forward.
Elsewhere on the record Flannel, which may be the least appealing song title here, is an interesting acoustic-led moment that shows off a more mature and gritty vocal from Timberlake. Breeze Off the Pond sounds like something you would expect Michael Jackson to have recorded, continuing Timberlake’s homage to the man who clearly inspired his career, and The Hard Stuff, the third and final Chris Stapleton co-write, is perhaps the boldest moment on the record as Timberlake sings about the ups and downs of a relationship.
Tracks such as Sauce, Supplies and Wave are perfectly enjoyable but they’re nothing you wouldn’t expect from Timberlake. The album closes with a touching tribute to Timberlake’s son where he passes down the wisdom and lessons he’s learned in life.
Man of the Woods has its moments but it’s not a cohesive body of work and it’s not the album that we all thought Timberlake was releasing. As I write this he’s sold over half a million tickets to his upcoming World Tour so his fans are sticking by him, as they should. For me, I’m keen for Timberlake to explore a more mature sound and release that Country-tinged record he keeps flirting with. Until then, there’s plenty here to enjoy and I’m sure he’ll come back fighting with whatever he does next.
Track list: 1. Filthy 2. Midnight Summer Jam 3. Sauce 4. Man of the Woods 5. Higher Higher 6. Wave 7. Supplies 8. Morning Light (feat. Alicia Keys) 9. Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton) 10. Hers (interlude) 11. Flannel 12. Montana 13. Breeze Off the Pond 14. Livin’ Off the Land 15. The Hard Stuff 16. Young Man Record label: RCA Release date: 2nd February 2018