These days, we consume media preemptively. We’ve already decided how we feel about a piece of art before we’ve interacted with it. In the weeks leading up to “The Force Awakens,” the hype became so insurmountable that there was no way anyone was going to dislike it. Before Justin Timberlake’s new album “Man of the Woods” came out on Friday, everyone had already decided it was a total disaster.
In the pop blogosphere, the trolls deemed it a country album. With song titles like “Flannel,” “Breeze off the Pond,” “Livin’ off the Land” and a Chris Stapleton feature, who could blame them? Although “The Hard Stuff” sounds like a B-side from Florida Georgia Line, “Man of the Woods” is not a country album. I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around it.
There seems to be a resurgence in concept albums. Last year, Tyler tried to convince us that he is a flower and Vince tried to convince us he was a fish. Now, the most far-fetched premise of all: Justin Timberlake tries to convince us he’s just a regular, chill dude.
On “Midnight Summer Jam,” Timberlake sings “Act like the south ain’t the shit.” On “Higher, Higher,” Timberlake claims he is a “southern man.” It’s true: he was born in Tennessee. However, by age 12, he starred in the Mickey Mouse Club, hanging out with the likes of Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Then, after, he joined the biggest boy band in the world.
Perhaps upon approaching the age of 40, Timberlake regrets missing out on a conventional life. In that case, “Man of the Woods” would communicate his fantasies as an average-joe. “I’m just a man doing the best I can” he professes on “Livin off the Land.” Also, his middle age could indicate losing his ear for what’s cool, for better or worse.
In 2002, Timberlake teamed up with super producer Timbaland to turn the music world on its head with their fusion of hip-hop and pop. On “Man of the Woods” they’re back together.
Stylistically, the album is all over the place. Each song battles between genres. Sometimes it ends in an unfortunate compromise. Other times, however, it yields interesting results. “Filthy” has dramatic glam-rock guitar against dubstep synths. “Sauce” has boom-bap drums against a roots-rock riff. The title track has a twangy slide guitar against bouncy 808s. Trap drums pop up everywhere.
The album does contain some objectively bad songs. “Say Something” has all the worst tendencies of stadium country and EDM. It’s vaguely protesty but not coherent enough to offend anyone. “Flannel” sounds like a Christmas song but somehow more nauseating than a Christmas song.
But we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The album also contains some pretty good songs. The enchanting soul of “Morning Light” intoxicates. “Filthy” is a certified bop. “Higher Higher,” “Montana” and “Breeze off the Pond” have a fun disco vibe.
Every great album has taken great risks in experimenting with genres (“Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Kid A,” “Yeezus”). Although Justin falls short of great, it’s admirable he took a chance. I don’t think it’s entirely disposable.
I wish I listened to music in a vacuum but I do not. I have seen many music reviewing sites tweeting diatribes against this album. I saw a think piece from Noisey about Justin’s “performative whiteness.” I saw a review from Pitchfork saying “MotW” is offensive enough to “revoke” his “pop superstar status.”
I don’t think it’s as dire as all that. Timberlake dipped his toes into something different, and it didn’t quite work out. He just released a hapless pop record, which he has done for the past two decades. Maybe in 2018, we all take ourselves too seriously to allow such fodder.
We derive sadistic pleasure out of eviscerating artists and dismantling their work. Everything is either a masterpiece or a catastrophe, no ambiguity. The commentary on a work of art has become more important than the artwork itself.
Critics love to pander to festering hate. They love to make “hot takes” about how “trash” an album is. I must admit, I too have frequently indulged in this.
Some may say I only wrote this review out of camaraderie with people who have the initials J.T., to which I would respond: maybe. Some may say I only wrote this review because I am contrarian, to which I would respond: no I’m not.