Once upon a time there was a sad man named Justin Vernon. A man who retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin and made a strange, ethereally modern folk album about love and loss. Who then became the darling of the critics and then (somewhat oddly) a favourite of cutting edge hip-hop and pop producers, flying first class around the world to collaborate with the likes of Kanye West on tracks that meticulously blended Americana and electronica. The old and the new, looking back whilst moving forward.
It is an unusual story and journey, but one that makes more sense when looked at objectively. See, there is an integrity, a dignity and an honesty about folk and country music; a tactile and radiant emotive core that cuts through excess to reveal the simple and often brutal truths. Melded correctly together, the combination of such devastating honesty and high-class production that shimmers, shines and reflects the future can be truly wonderful.
The problem is that this honesty and integrity needs to exist as the framework, not the window-dressing. And this is where Man of the Woods – though bold in its aim and ambition to tread a similar path to West/Vernon and combine elements of country and Americana with electronic beats – singularly fails to impress. Justin Timberlake has always been an artist whose journey through pop has been characterised by adventure and innovation. The biggest issue tainting nearly every aspect of Man of the Woods is that too often it resonates as both incoherent and insincere in attempting to combine such disparate genres, and this insincerity positions it as Timberlake’s weakest record by some distance.
Where Man of the Woods arrives from is a head-on crash between Americana, country, funk and disco at an intersection, leaving each side woozy, unbalanced and uncertain. Lead single ‘Filthy’ should have been the early warning – limp, uncertain of itself and attempting to pack as many ideas into one song as possible, without coherently realising the potential of any of them. Timberlake is essentially repositioning himself as a family man, a down-at-home-on-the-ranch man, a post-modern brother of the soil who still knows how to enjoy the other aspects of life after a day’s work. But too often these things seem awkwardly forced and difficult to believe, almost as if someone had drawn an alter-ego caricature of the younger and more carefree JT and dressed him in jeans and a lumberjack shirt.
Chiefly problematic here are the lyrics. The cringe-worthy metaphors about finding the “faucet” between his lover’s legs on the title track. The awkward Bon Iver-aspiring schmaltz on ‘Flannel’. The “do-si-do” country cliches of ‘Midnight Summer Jam’. And well, just every single line on ‘Filthy’. In between that are songs that reflect on the nature of fame and expectation (‘Higher Higher’) and ruminations on life as a father (‘Young Man’). The problem is that none of these stories carry any emotional heft; painted thinly, reliant on cliché and fundamentally unengaging. He sounds happy and wiser but the words are conversely cold, impersonal and unengaging.
That is not to say there aren’t things to admire about Man of the Woods. First, the chutzpah to make the record in the first place. It is often said that sheer ambition can to some extent offset a lack of quality and Timberlake and his production team deserve at least some credit for not making another slick R&B/pop record. The production is as top-class as you’d expect from a team including The Neptunes, Timbaland and Danja – woozy, cutting, multi-layered and spacious. And when the sense of smug satisfaction is dialled down, there are some engaging moments. Take the eye-rolling lyrics away and the aforementioned ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ is strident futuristic disco. Even better is ‘Supplies’ – comfortably the best thing on the album with all of the laser-sharp production that made The Neptunes early work so compelling.
Aside from the utterly stagnant ‘Flannel’ and ‘Filthy’, it is hard to actively despise Man of the Woods. It is certainly a brave record, and hearing Timberlake singing happily alongside his wife and child would take a colder heart than mine to mock. He’s happy now, he’s content, he has matured and grown. But whereas Justin Timberlake and his superstar teammates have always lead the field in modern pop music and contemporary trends, here they are stumbling to keep up with the pace by employing a scattergun approach, as opposed to a coherent and clear blueprint. Man of the Woods is not an outright disaster but it is a significant disappointment – a record too preoccupied with image, volte face and forced “REAL” to fully engage as a coherent piece of craftsmanship. Pop’s modern-day pioneer may have set out into the woods, but in failing to prepare and engage his audience honestly, he ends up lost and attempting to navigate back home using crude and outdated tools.
4David Edwards's Score