By Sam Bleazard
On approaching Justin Timberlake’s new album it’s hard not to quickly review what you already know about him.
Child star from the Mickey Mouse Club, leading boy band member of N-Sync, solo superstar with multi-million sales, collaborator, arena filler, the Janet Jackson ‘wardrobe malfunction’, actor in The Social Network and Friends with Benefits, and coming right up to date with his Superbowl headliner in Minneapolis. So how to re-invent oneself to keep not only yourself, but also your audience from getting bored? The answer he’s come up with is Man of the Woods.
If you haven’t already seen it, check out the YouTube clip for Filthy, the opening release from the album. Set in a fictional ‘Pan-Asian deep learning conference in 2028’ Timberlake presents himself as a bespectacled and preppy robotics entrepreneur, unveiling a machine that’s clearly got the moves.
The sound initially jars, but then like pleasant interference, draws the listener in wave after wave…so far, so intriguing. A template for the rest of the album to come? Well, not quite.
Also on YouTube is a video for the song Say Something, featuring Kentuckian country music star Chris Stapleton, which carries the message that “sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all…”. Supposedly inspired by criticism aimed in his direction about ‘cultural appropriation’ on Twitter – which followed Timberlake’s tweets in suport of a powerful BET Awards speech on race by actor and activist Jesse Williams – it’s certainly heartfelt, and is a statement song purely for its own sake. The message is, if I’m misunderstood it might be better to let the silence do the talking.
So what about the rest?
“Y’all can’t do better than this, y’all can’t do better than this…” Midnight Summer jam gets the album underway in earnest, a light and frothy piece of of RnB with a Latin tinge in the spirit of the party. Imploring the listener that ‘it starts at midnight’, it’s an ode to the South. Indeed the entire album proper seems to be, but attempts to blend styles in an experimental way. ‘Sauce’ takes this idea to its furthest point with the most country-ish guitar lick you’ll hear all year as the prelude to a kick drum and some distinctly Prince-influenced lyrical delivery. It’s the kind of thing Andre 3000’s Outkast might have discarded from their Love Below project.
On one level there’s fun to be had, but it will be marmite to many and not to everyone’s taste.
So edgy futurism, an RnB/latin jam and country-ish funk lead us into the title track, Man of the Woods. It’s pure campfire in the intro, but just as you’re settling in and start to sway to its sparse drum pad beat, a Stax-style chicken grease guitar can be heard about 40 seconds into the second pre-chorus. Before the track is over we also get shades of Barber shop quartet backing vocals and lyrics about his pride in being a Southern Man.
Higher higher is a falsetto lament – to a lover, or himself?, ‘you’re special, on every level’ – the tension in the song being that success and money can’t replace the important things in life. Montana is a bouncy laid back piece of funk about nothing more than escapism, but doesn’t suffer for it. The Bee-Gees style vocal make it accessible, almost serving as a mid-tempo partner piece to previous single Take Back The Night, from his The 20/20 Experience part 2 album.
Wave is probably the closest link to what’s gone before in terms of his recorded output, a bright and breezy tune about being free and far from home, it’s hard to resist as a song to bob your head to. ‘Ain’t got no phone, don’t need it though…ain’t got no waves’. So not all experimental then.
Supplies is a call out to a lover, with only a back-beat for company, to let her know he’s got every angle covered, while Morning Light is an old-school duet with Alicia Keys which sounds like it could have been written in the late 1950s or early 60s. Flannel takes up the country theme once more, with acoustic guitars and some story-telling reverb on the vocal, we’re back round the camp fire again, ‘right behind my left pocket, that is where you’ll feel my soul.’
With 15 tracks there’s an almost inevitable sag with the conscious effort at conscience songs like Breeze Off The Pond and the hoe-down of Livin’ Off the Land, which sound like an appeal to the Trump voting heartlands of middle America from the man born and raised in Tennessee. The album finishes with Young Man, an appeal to the disenfranchised, and another message to those who are “going to have to stand for somethin'”.
There’s a lot to like about the many experiments on this album, because it’s always very listenable. Does it all hit the mark? No. But is it worth a listen? An overwhelming yes.
He may be of the woods, but Justin Timberlake has proven he’s definitely not lost in them.