The internet is so crazed nowadays that by the time the album actually arrived it had already triggered waves of counterwaves of analysis. Some critics riffed on the Man of the Woods promos that looked like Marlboro commercials, and others cackled as the robo-funk first single, “Filthy,” seemed to render silly those who’d rushed to claim Timberlake was rebooting as lumbersexual. In fact, it does now appear that Man of the Woods is his “country” album. It shouts out the hospitable South and Montana’s mountains, his homeland and vacation pad, respectively. It arranges hoedowns with Chris Stapleton and Toby Keith, both Nashville titans, one trendy and one very much not.
But Timberlake is, as the album’s cover telegraphs, on a duality kick. So he very effortfully tries to scramble what country means, empowering his retro-futurist R&B collaborators—old pals Timbaland, Danja, and the Neptunes mostly—to incessantly fidget. Yes, mandolin and harmonica appear. But more noticeable are the chopped up vocal samples, helium-light funk guitars, and slabby synths. Yes, there’s crooning about whiskey. But there’s also a “Billie Jean” imitation. Imagine standing between the dance tent and the folkie tent at a music festival. Imagine having to describe this same concept after having already reviewed Lady Gaga’s Joanne and Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now.
Innovating is tough, and so Timberlake’s ambitions are, fairly or not, easy to mock. You can imagine him working from an iPhone note of ungodly 3 a.m. ideas: “‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ + ‘Wait (The Whisper Song)’” (resulting in “Man of the Woods”) or “Boyz II Men covering Fleet Foxes doing ‘I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)’” (it’s real, and it’s called “Flannel”). He tends toward hammy-bad lyrics packed with sexual innuendos about faucets and food. But for the public to now reject Timberlake’s dorky sense of humor and flair for genre-crossing would be inconsistent—is anything here much more embarrassing, on paper, than “Señorita” or “Sexyback”?
The problem’s just mathematical. He hasn’t stuck the choruses. Hence a song like “Sauce,” strutting with grimy guitars and overt Prince references, which feels like a headache rather than a rush. Hence the need for a remixer to stitch together the finer grooves of “Midnight Summer Jam,” which repeatedly interrupts its own party for Timberlake to do a Lonely Island chorus about the South being “the shit.” Hence the lead single “Filthy” still, weeks after its middling charts debut, feeling like a prototype of a hit rather than the actual thing.
The schmaltzy back half of the album is the stronger half, leaning on not Timberlake’s trickster pep but rather his honeyed voice. Remember, the truest highlights of his career glide: “Mirrors,” “My Love,” “Cry Me a River.” The icy throb of “Montana” pulls a neat trick of transposing the feeling of a nightclub high onto the act of making out at a ranch. Timberlake’s courtly manner and swooping melodies for “Livin’ Off the Land” somehow magnify and therefore excuse the preposterousness of lyrics positioning him as a prospector fending for his family. And “The Hard Stuff,” co-written by Stapleton, waxes sentimental about the unsentimental parts of life in nicely small-scale fashion.