Following his 3rd & 4th studio albums, The 20/20 Experience and The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2, which were eventually released together as the Complete Experience, Justin Timberlake has not been up to too much aside from a stand-alone single accompanying his starring role in the 2016 musical movie Trolls, and touring off the 20/20 records. He did speak in 2016 about his 5th studio album taking influence from his Tennessee upbringing more than his previous albums, and in some ways Man of the Woods has brought that vibe in a more modern vessel. The album largely features writing and production credits from Timbaland & Pharrell Williams, as well as JT himself & has for sure marked itself apart from the neo-soul class of The 20/20 Experience with more country and guitar influenced concoctions of funk, trap, & even some double time folk.
The album kicks off with the lead single Filthy, which after a circus-y intro dives very quickly into its fundamental robotic seduction swathed in electronic instrumentation. The verses carry a lyric of “haters gonna say it’s fake, so real”, and while it is a meme reference, it sits ironically as the track is largely analog & concludes with stuttery synth flairs. This track provides a strong start to the album with that momentum largely uninterrupted through the next 2 tracks. Midnight Summer Jam is an infectious samba dressed up with trap influence in the vocal delivery. It contains string moments that fall in a similar vein to Don’t Hold the Wall from his 3rd album. The eventual building harmonies in a harmonica solo are quite unexpected but cater well to the climax.
Sauce is driven by a guitar riff containing some heavy Jackson 5 vibes with very zappy motifs, but the next track is definitely not anywhere close to this sound. Man of the Woods, the title track, contains chord progressions that sound so country which is oddly paired with a Roland TR-909 drum kit that makes the entire piece sound like an awkward take out of a country jam session that was preceded by an acid hit. The pre-chorus contains a lyric “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs, Hey, there’s the faucet” that is probably the worst reference to genitalia I’ve heard in modern music rivaled only by Bruno Mars calling his manhood “the rocket”. What seems most consistent throughout this album, including this song, is that the bridges of most of the tracks are more impressive than the track as a whole, seeming as if the song could’ve fared better had it stuck to that vibe throughout. The gang vocals on this title track are very reminiscent of his past work with the Tennessee Kids.
Following this we have Higher, Higher, a jazzy ballad that belongs in a dark roomed lowkey night club. The lyrics in the 2nd verse were not too impressive for me, but the song does carry a good groove overall. Next is Wave, a quick , haphazard country folk record with some trap ad libs going on in the bridge. The “now the other way” lyric gets pretty repetitive with no variation in the melody whatsoever.
As what I would classify as the worst song on the record, Supplies is a straight up cookie cutter trap song. The lyrics are uninteresting, the chorus hook is a lazy cop-out in lieu of something greater, and as is common on the album, the bridge is better than the rest of the song. Morning Light contains a good-but-not-great Alicia Keys feature, and the track carries a nice gospel R&B sway. The percussive pockets are very swift and keep the record moving, and Justin & Alicia’s vocals blend together very well.
Say Something is one of the strongest tracks on the record with a Chris Stapleton feature on vocals & guitar. The arrangement is well done providing a very full and rich sound. Towards the end it does feel quite repetitive, as if it could’ve used one less chorus or something. Hers (Interlude) is a nice, subtle, touching moment of Jessica Biel speaking to the love she has towards her husband atop some beautiful piano accompaniments. The next track Flannel has some great vocal performance which is the case across most of the record. JT is still a very solid singer and has some nice events of flair. This is a slight ballad with a very old-fashioned country vibe with a surprise switch up towards the end in a very eerie transition. Some of the vocal effects in this section stretch the vocal out to last longer than it was originally sung and the bright audio artifacts that produces keep you on edge.
Montana has a very 80s feel but doesn’t carry any other distinguishing features or moments really. It continues to hold up that this album is very guitar driven, with mostly acoustic and some electric guitar found on the majority of the record. Breeze Off The Pond also falls in the category of not being too memorable, aside from its tight instrumentation and the stellar vocal performance in the refrain. Living Off the Land begins with a Disney soundtrack style moment that sounds like something you would’ve heard in the movie Bambi. The pre-chorus does come across as cheesy with its lyrics, and the walking bass line contrasts interestingly on the electronic drums, & the strings are a great addition in the moments before the last chorus.
The Hard Stuff starts with an instant full-out country vibe & a super well done chorus with lyricism that stands out from the rest of the record as a different take on a love song than we are used to hearing from Justin’s sensual writing style. The final track Young Man has a very cute intro & outro which features recordings of Justin & his wife Jessica interacting with his son Silas as he says Daddy & other phrases. The song as a whole is a letter penned to his son for him to hear as he gets older, although I wouldn’t say this is my favorite rendition of this “Dear Child” theme that you may have also heard on tracks from Macklemore & Ben Folds.
This is an album that definitely diverts but doesn’t abandon the style brought to The 20/20 Experience as it takes its Tennessee country influence mixed in with the very modern and recent production and instrumentation. Man of the Woods has some very strong, well performing tracks, and on the songs that don’t rise to the same level, it at least has the instrumentation being impressive while the vocals or lyrics lack, and vice versa on Justin’s expansive harmonies. How Justin moves on from this will really be something to watch, but as long as he isn’t saying “Brrr” 40 something times as a vocal accent like he did on Supplies, I’m sure he will do just fine. I give this record a 7 out of 10.
Written by Jon Gibson