I have to say, I respect the heck out of Justin Timberlake.
In an era when it’d be so easy for him to just be a straight-up, stick-to-the-formula pop star, he has continued to be a genre bender, unafraid of trying different sounds.
That being said, man, some of those different sounds on “Man of the Woods” are bad.
The bold and uneven 16-song album kicks off with the its first single, “Filthy,” which is pretty solid. It’s vintage Timberlake and the melody has grown on me over the past couple of weeks. But it’s not great.
I’ve been worried since “Filthy” was released that this album might be somewhat of a letdown. It didn’t strike me as a particularly strong first single.
The second song, “Midnight Summer Jam,” is one of the better songs on the album. It melds acoustic guitar and woodsy/bluesy/southern elements with funky hip hop beats much better than other songs on the album.
Then, the album starts to get a little bumpy.
“Sauce” isn’t a bad song, but it’s forgettable.
Then, there’s “Man of the Woods.” Again, I see what JT is trying to do here. I admire the ambition, … I just don’t really like the results. The song’s an enjoyable listen, but comes off as silly. Judging by the song’s video, it seems like he’s in on the joke, which is fine. Still, the song’s just not that good.
Next up are “Higher Higher” and “Wave,” both of which leave no lasting impression on me after the first listen.
“Supplies,” the album’s second single, has also grown on me since I first heard it. Timberlake relies a lot on his falsetto in much of his recent work, so it’s nice hearing him sit in his middle range for a single. If you’re going to “bump” one of the “Man of the Woods” songs in the car, this one would be it.
Alicia Keys helps JT smooth things out a little with “Morning Light,” a slick, sultry breath of fresh air.
Next, one of country’s truest and best artists, Chris Stapleton, steps in to help Timberlake with “Say Something.” The two work well together on the album’s solid-enough third single.
Then, the album hits its lowest point: the “Hers (interlude)” and “Flannel,” which weirdly places far too much importance in a man’s flannel shirt. I legitimately laughed out loud when Timberlake sang, “Ooooo! Here’s my flannel!”
Thankfully, Timberlake rebounds well with the funky tracks “Montana” and “Breeze Off the Pond.” They both have a retro R&B – almost disco, even – feel.
Then, things get a little gimmicky again with the beginning of “Livin’ Off the Land,” with clips off people talking about living in the woods and stuff. I don’t recognize all the voices, but one of them is Tom Oar from the History Channel’s reality series “Mountain Men.” That cracked me up. We’re really hitting this outdoors theme hard here, JT.
The strange intro aside, “Livin’ Off the Land” is unique and one of brightest moments on the album.
“The Hard Stuff” continues the album’s strong finish.
By this point in the album, it’s clear fans shouldn’t have worried about “Man of the Woods” being a country album, because it’s not. However, “The Hard Stuff” is the closest thing to something you’d hear on a country station. It’s sleek, warm and catchy.
“Young Man” closes things out with a song for Timberlake and his wife Jessica Biel’s son, Silas. It’s cute and kind of helps put this album into perspective. “Man of the Woods” was named after Silas, whose name means “Man of the forest.”
As an entertainer who kinda oozes youthfulness and silliness, It’s easy to forget that Timberlake is now 37, a father and husband. He’s in a different place than he was when he recorded “The 20/20 Experience” in 2013 and “FutureSex/LoveSounds” in 2006, both much more saucy and suggestive.
There's no doubt that “Man of the Woods” misses the mark more than few times, just as "The 20/20 Experience" did before it.
It's remarkable again, though, to take in Timberlake's unyielding desire to do something different.
Pop music used to be full of artists like that.
Pop music needs more artists like that.