Man of the Woods is glistening pop album steeped in Nashville soul and rural blues. The greatest achievement of this album is the production; in every song, you can hear months of toil into achieving the perfect sound. From the crackles of fire and bursts of wind to swooping synths and gentle acoustic guitars, Man of the Woods combines key facets of all of Timberlake’s musical personals. The main downside to all of this belaboring over the production of each individual track is the lack of a cohesive soundscape. Sonically, the album is kind of all over the place. Shifting semi-sporadically from gutsy synthpop with robust rock codas (“Filthy”) to apocalyptic pop-trap (“Supplies”) to country-pop (“Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton)”) to campfire folk-pop (“Flannel”), Man of the Woods is a victim of its own sprawling ambition.
While the production is of the highest quality, the lyrics are by and large vapid and cringe-inducing; they feel like afterthoughts on the album. Lyrically, the album is riddled with clichés and tired sex innuendos and family metaphors. At times the innate cheesiness induces a heartwarming sensation (“Flannel,” “Young Man”), and at other times, not so much (“Filthy,” “Sauce”). This album was marketed as Timberlake’s most personal work, yet the emptiness of the lyrics undercut the sincere emotion in his vocal performance. On that note, I would argue that Man of the Woods features not only Timberlake’s best collection of vocal collaborators (Stapelton, Alica Keys) but also his strongest vocal performances. As always Timberlake’s voice is malleable and slick, but there are new notes of thoughtfulness, love, and reverence for his life and family that resonate throughout the album.
Man of the Woods isn’t Timberlake’s best work, but it certainly isn’t a bad album. The marrying of seemingly polar opposite genres works incredibly well and Timberlake sounds more at home on this album’s production than on any of his previous releases. Man of the Woods is a definite step forward for Justin Timberlake in terms of innovation and evolution. Yes, the marketing campaign was confusing and the first two singles were misleading, but the album as a whole is a solid body of work. There is some filler, but they are nearly excused by the beautiful harmonies and interesting song structures. Justin Timberlake has reintroduced himself as a “Man of the Woods,” and I like it.
Key Tracks: “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton)”