JT relies on years of professional show business experience to deliver a heartfelt glimpse into his personal life on a fun and joyously funky release.
Album Grade: B
Despite the title, Man of the Woods is neither rustic nor gritty. It is a fun and deeply personal album by Justin Timberlake certain to please his ever-growing and enthusiastic fan-base. Timberlake digs deep on his most personally revealing album, with a focus on family and life. Named for his son, Silas which means “of the forest” in Latin, Man of the Woods is an album that works both commercially and artistically.
Timberlake references his southern heritage and Memphis origins throughout the album, but the clean show-business professionalism of the record has more in common with the later “Vegas”-era Elvis Presley than his earlier Sun Records period. While he may not embody the raw street grittiness of Memphis, Timberlake makes up for it in stage-worn perfection and attention to detail.
The ironically titled “Filthy” opens the album in bombastic fashion and draws attention to the overall cleanness of the record. It is a funky song, but a crisp, efficient funk approach seemingly at odds with the grittier sound the song’s lyrics aspire to. To put it simply, this is from Michael Jackson’s school of funk as opposed to the one attended by Prince. While it may feel “sanitized for your protection,” it is not to say that it’s not enjoyable. It’s just a propulsive, albeit predictable, start offering a promise of good, clean fun.
“Midnight Summer Jam” works better and evokes the exact moment suggested by its title. The groove is stronger and Timberlake’s vocals pop and slide throughout while the song structure delivers an unexpected break before restarting with a repetitious and engaging guitar line as a joyous harmonica adds color over the top. The elation of this number is infectious and Timberlake and crew are fully aware of it, referencing his massive 2016 pop hit “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” this time exhorting “Please don’t stop the music” during the track’s raucous coda. This is a song that brings a toe-tapping smile that continues Timberlake’s winning ways in crafting a hit single.
“Wave” bounces along with Calypso-lite guitar and a spritely keyboard line reminiscent of the 1972 song “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. Light and frothy, this is just lightweight fun, but far from a throwaway. The levity of “Waves” sets up the darker tone of the moodiness found in “Supplies” that follows. Sequenced together, these two songs work well and give Man of the Woods cohesive balance.
“Say Something” is the album’s defining moment. Fellow Tennessean Chris Stapleton is featured on the track and helps to bring out deeper authenticity from Timberlake’s voice. This song is well crafted with introspective lyrics and tremendous harmonic interplay between the two vocalists. One can only hope that eventually these two talented singers will expand their collaboration to an entire album. Play this one loud. It will dig deep into your soul.
The biggest downside to Man of the Woods are the frequent and embarrassing interludes that populate the album. Of these, “Hers” is particularly cringe-worthy. This unfortunate voice-over is about how donning a partner’s ripped shirt creates the sensation of somehow also belonging it’s owner as well. While the song it sets up, “Flannel” is a nice personal rumination on Timberlake’s show business origin; the further voice over at the end of the piece is equally treacly.
Production by Timberlake, Timbaland, The Neptunes, J-Roc, Eric Hudson, Rob Knox and Danja is immaculate throughout Man of the Woods and wisely never gets in the way or tries to be overly flashy or “cool.” Despite the large number of people involved, Man of the Woods hardly feels like an album created “by committee.” Instrumental ornamentation is uncluttered, direct and all serve to contribute a consistent style from beginning to end.
The album closes with the heartfelt “Young Man” dedicated and addressed to Timberlake’s son. The recording begins with the vocalist and his wife, Jessica Biel, coaxing Silas to say “dada” and peels away celebrity to reveal an honest singer sharing the universal joys of parenthood. A simple country-styled song, this love letter offers Timberlake’s life lessons learned and ends with the young man in question’s voice gently saying “I love you, Daddy.” This moment alone is enough to warm the coldest of hearts and offers a richly satisfying conclusion to the album.
Bottom Line: Personable, engaging and fun, Man of the Woods is a delight created by a consummate professional.
By Daniel G. Moir