Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods” is a Misplaced Attempt at Originality and Also Sincerity – As In, It Fails at Both

Hitting the fan immediately prior to JT’s flashy Pepsi superbowl halftime show (which merits its own review/sigh-party), “Man of the Woods” was poised to ride the rainbow of attention directed at the last surviving member of NSYNC straight into the frontal cortices of pretty much everyone in America and onward. The strategery at play here is staggering. Even ignoring this sufficient display of suspect behavior, the album by itself brings on a whole festival of butt-clenchery.

The scene is almost visible (is there a vision-oriented word for palpable?) – JT sitting comfortably at home in 2016, listening to Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” for the first time. His eyes light up in an obvious spurt of Identification and subsequent Inspiration; Chance made a good rap/hip hop/pop album while also expressing his beliefs and heritage, while also pushing the boundaries of the genre(s)? There wasn’t a possibility that JT wasn’t going to follow suit.

The sad part is that “Man of the Woods” fails to achieve a semblance of depth. Where “Coloring Book” shocked, surprised, and moved listeners with its honesty, “Man of the Woods” is clothed in literal plaid flannel, a tacky device to bring the new music of the Timb to resonate (I mean literal vibration) with at least bearded country folk (country colossus Chris Stapleton is featured, and so is his powerful facial growth).

Heartfelt evokery of warm Southern Alabama iconography cannot hide the uncomfortable-to-hear musical and lyrical outflow in songs like “The Hard Stuff” and “Breeze Off the Pond.” It is one of the rare records that declines steadily from the first song, which is a crowd-pleaser for sure, and perhaps the only listenable track with the exception of “Waves,” which goes so far off the deep end that I couldn’t help but shimmy as the surprise steel drums come in over a beat that is already too weird to believe.

Timber also comes at the sincerity thing from too many directions, which totally undermines the Aesthetic & Ambience of sincerity /originality that this record is supposed to embody. If the listener hadn’t yet doubted the honesty of good JT through all the other songs on the record, the closer, “Young Man,” an empty father-to-son love song, really makes sure you can tell he’s doing it for likes. The song is a JT-sponsored How-To on being a “good man” and “making God smile” but fails to present any real expression of love; in a sickening attempt to affect a feeling of believability, the song even includes samples of his son saying “I love you daddy.” It seems unnecessary to argue this further.

In 2018 it is still fine to make a bad record. Sadly, the strange rallying chant in “Say Something” pushes the work over the line from awkward to criminal. Jumberlake combos with Chris Stapleton in a weird repetitive anthem of abstention as the song essentially attempts to convince listeners not to speak out. “Sometimes the greatest way of saying something is to say nothing at all” might be the worst possible motto for any non-regressive-thinking-type American to hear, much less project into at least a billion ears. This record might make it into the highest ranks of the Billboard charts, but it is absolutely going to be on the chopping block for this one.

6/10 would listen to “Waves” again.

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