Justin Timberlake has largely been missing from the pop culture scene for a while.
He released his last record, the two-part “20/20 Experience” in 2013, and other than an odd appearance on a movie soundtrack or on SNL, that’s all we’ve heard from him. It was easy to start to miss the guy.
But after the release of “Man of the Woods,” Timberlake’s first offering in half a decade, he could easily go missing again for all I care.
The record seems to be centered around a conceit of getting back to Timberlake’s “Southern” roots. While he’s a Memphis native, the sounds of the South — especially the white South — have been largely absent from Timberlake’s catalog, instead favoring the sounds of a smoother — and admittedly more African-American — R&B sound.
Here, though, Timberlake samples liberally from the sounds below the Mason-Dixon line. But he seems to do this without any sort of regard for where those sounds are coming from.
“Midnight Summer Jam” has a Hispanic flair that could come from the Southwest; “Supplies” liberally lifts from the Atlanta trap rap sound; “Say Something,” featuring Chris Stapleton, is the only track that feels authentic to the Tennessee roots Timberlake seems so proud of.
And I mean that he’s really proud of it. Everything seems to go back to it. Take the title track, one of the seemingly endless love songs on the album. In this one, he talks about how he feels the need to tell everyone about his love (who is presumably his wife, Jessica Biel).
“But you know I’m a southern man, / A man of the woods and you’re my pride,” he tells her.
And you know, it’s fine that Timberlake is proud of his heritage. But it feels so much like he’s trying to use it to fit into a certain image. It’s nearly impossible to think that the man who sang that he’s “bringing sexy back” without any irony would also regard himself as a “man of the woods.” The images seem so incongruous.
But when Timberlake isn’t pretending to be a cowboy, he’s talking about his wife. And the way he talks about her varies between weirdly sexual and disgustingly cloying.
Let’s start with that second one first. Late album cut “Flannel” is so lovey-dovey that it’s just gross.
“Right behind my left pocket, / That is where you’ll feel my soul,” Timberlake croons in his best impression of a lullaby. “It’s been with me many winters, / It will keep you warm.”
“I’m going to give her my love like I could give her my shirt,” he seems to be telling the listener. “Get it? Get it???”
Yes, Justin. We get it.
But while the diabetic sweetness of “Flannel” is strangely romantic, it actually ends up being a welcome break from the peculiarly sexy songs that the album is front-loaded with.
After opening with a sample of a viral video of a Best Buy employee explaining the difference between “juice” and “sauce,” the song “Sauce” kicks off with Timberlake telling his lover the following:
“I love your pink, you love my purple, / You must be God herself, can I come worship?”
“Pink? Purple?” Timberlake asks. “Get it?”
I can only picture any of Timberlake’s fans who have a maturity level higher than that of a 15-year-old boy groaning at this.
Back to the title track, he hits us with “Fingers walking, down your legs, / Hey, there’s the faucet.”
And I can forgive these frankly horrible lyrics too. I mean, Timberlake did say that this was his most personal record, and what’s more personal than talking about sex with his wife?
But it’s the last track that recontextualizes all of the other umpteen love songs and makes them all feel extra weird.
“Young Man” is dedicated to the couple’s young son, Silas. It’s another cloying, sugary pop song. Timberlake takes the opportunity to give his young son some vague advice on how to be a better person — don’t expect the depth of Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” — but this raises a very important question.
What’s going to happen when young Silas is old enough to actually understand this song, but he has to listen to all the songs about his parents having sex before he gets to it?
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of my issues with this album, but I’m running out of room. Most of the songs are overly long and have frankly bad production. Timberlake’s vocals on the first half of the record sound like they were recorded in a big room with the singer 40 feet away from the microphone.
There is virtually nothing redeeming about this record, except for the Stapleton-featured “Say Something” — which really could have been better as a Stapleton solo song.
“Man of the Woods” is just not good. If you expect it to be a follow up to the amazing “20/20 Experience,” you’ll have to find that from some other pop star. Maybe Harry Styles is working on something.