I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when we first saw the trailer for Justin Timberlake‘s Man Of The Woods. A country-inspired album from JT? As a refresher, the last time we had heard a full album from Timberlake was 2013’s two part The 20/20 Experience, an excruciatingly long (almost two and a half hours) project that was about as far from country as you can get, all glitzy flash and heavily produced. As it turns out, Man Of The Woods takes the worst parts of all the ideas Timberlake has floated in the past month and in his previous work. What we’re left with is an album that drags on forever, never finds its footing, and squanders even its best songs in a sea of unnecessary padding and confused ideas.
The album starts on a high note with its first single, “Filthy.” There’s nothing to write home about lyrically here, mostly Timberlake in full party mode. The production is excellent, which is one of the few saving graces on Man of the Woods. Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Chad Hugo are collectively some of the best in the business, so the beats throughout the album are mostly strong.
The cracks begin to appear even before “Filthy” runs its course, though. The song actually ends at around the 4:15 mark, but what follows is about 40 seconds of ambient music before the second track begins. If you remember 20/20, of which exactly one(1) out of its 20 songs ran less than 5 minutes, you’ll already have a pit forming in your stomach. Trust that instinct.
On a song to song basis, many of these tracks run long after they’ve run out of things to say, tacking on excessive numbers of chorus repeats and meandering instrumentals. Take second track “Midnight Summer Jam” as an example. It’s not great to begin with (Timberlake chanting “Act like The South ain’t the shit” is laughably corny), but it’s a 3 and a half minute dance number that goes on its way quickly. Or it would be in a just world. Instead, it’s a track that runs the same hook over and over for a full minute after Timberlake sings the last line, padding the runtime to over 5 minutes. I can’t even fully endorse some of the few songs I like on this album because of this unnecessary excess. “Flannel” is the best mix of country and pop on the album, a touching ode to Timberlake’s love for his family and his upbringing. And then there’s the fake-deep spoken word/woods noises section tacked onto the end that poorly fits the rest of the song.
The problem persists on a more macro view as well. At over an hour, there are many of the 16 songs that are redundant and clearly should have been left on the cutting room floor. “Supplies” is a lesser version of “Filthy,” “The Hard Stuff” doesn’t bring anything to the table that “Flannel” doesn’t from both a musical and a lyrical standpoint, and trimming the fat in these areas would also allow the removal of the interlude “Hers.”
The whole “Man Of The Woods” idea never fully works either. About half the album is just straight up pop, with nary a whiff of guitar or rustic charm to be found. On its own, that fact is fine. But Timberlake promised a rustic album, so omitting that from half the selections is a damaging choice. When he does lean into this faux-country idea, it doesn’t even work on every song it appears on. The title track is a disaster, with vocals that sound like they were produced for an entirely different song and then grafted onto the sickly-sweet twang that was decided upon as an instrumental.
While I am overwhelmingly down on Man Of The Woods, it does scrape together a few moments that are palatable. “Filthy” is a fun dance track even if it’s not particularly deep. “Flannel” is enjoyable if you pretend it ends a minute and a half before it actually does. The one truly great song is “Say Something,” which mostly rides recent Grammy-winner Chris Stapleton’s songwriting and country chops and actually works in combining pop and country in the dueling guitars.
One great song does not make an album, though. The same bloat that sunk The 20/20 Experience rears its head on Man Of The Woods, and it’s clear that just like me, Timberlake desperately needs an editor. In addition to the excess, the musical idea behind the album never cohesively comes together into an enjoyable package. A pop star returning to his Southern roots is an interesting idea in theory, but in practice Man Of The Woods is a huge misstep for Justin Timberlake.