Track-by-Track Review: Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods

Josh: In another version of reality that diverged from ours in February 2004, Janet Jackson tore the crotch off of Justin Timberlake’s pants during the Super Bowl halftime show, exposing his dingus to the world and fundamentally derailing his career. This is a world in which the confident and very good album FutureSex/LoveSounds and the ambitious and mostly good album The 20/20 Experience might not have happened. That’s a shame. But it’s also a world in which Janet might have released something approximating those albums instead, and it’s also a world in which Justin never would have had the inflated self-perception to release this year’s half-baked rebranding effort, Man of the Woods.

This is a record so hilariously misguided I had to enlist Mark’s help to break it down. Here we go track-by-track.

1. Filthy

Josh: I feel like this song is going for sexy, but between the faux-funk squelching digital bass farts, the animal noises, and Timberlake’s invitation/threat that he’s going to “leave the cage open,” “Filthy” comes off about as sexy as that photoshoot scene in Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me where Mike Meyers wants Rebecca Romijn and Kristen Johnson to act like a tiger. Is this the disembodied voice of Jessica Biel at the end of the song? What is going on?!

Mark: The biggest shame about this turd pile is that there’s actually a really nice funky bassline played on a real bass guitar buried underneath all of the panting and idiot robot animal noises. It’s like somebody with talent was hiding in a broom closet at the studio practicing something unrelated and they just happened to pick it up on mic and leave it in. “Filthy” isn’t so far from the recent “kitchen sink” production of recent Taylor Swift material, where they throw in a bunch of clashing elements in an effort to be forward-thinking, but wind up shitting out something tuneless and confusing instead. This is mostly very bad!

2. Midnight Summer Jam

Josh: This one actually has a fun beat and a great Raphael Saadiq bass line, and feels kind of like classic Timberlake, but it’s also emblematic of how haphazardly pasted together this record is. The intro & interludes feel pasted in from a completely different song, the violin doesn’t belong, and it features an absurd harmonica solo. You know when a song ends, and then it decides to start again and keep going for another full, extraneous minute? Yeah, this is one of those songs.

Mark: I’ll concede that the central jam in “Midnight Summer Jam” is pretty fun. The intro and interludes, as Josh mentioned, sound completely removed from the rest of the track and make for a very disjointed listen. I’m also just realizing that JT’s phrasing and delivery reminds me a lot of Weezer’s recent stabs at “pop music”. Ridiculous. The production is bizarre and off-putting! If this is the sound of future pop, I’m going to have to work harder at listening to deafening punk music before I have to hear more of it.

And yeah, what the hell with this song dying and then coming back from the grave to haunt me for another minute? Was not even a single person in the studio willing to tell this guy “no”?

3. Sauce

Josh: If “Filthy” was unsexy, “Sauce” is full on cringe-pornography. I genuinely threw up in my mouth a little when Timberlake says “I love your pink, you love my purple.” Stop making us think about your dick, dude. And maybe don’t use the phrase “loose screws” in a sex song about your wife who had your kid. Timberlake has been criticised for the way he cribs black music in the past, but it has never before felt like he’s doing it as poorly as he is with the tepid sub-Robin Thicke funk aesthetic he keeps employing on this album.

Mark: I love a distorted bass guitar, and this song has that. So points for that. Points deducted for the song itself which is gross and dorky at the same time. You can sing “Mmm Bop” to it while simultaneously singing “Blurred Lines” to it. What an embarrassing thing this is.

4. Man of the Woods

Josh: I get the impression Justin only recently realised his name has the words “timber” and “lake” in them, and decided to make a nature-themed album even though it definitely feels like he’s never stepped foot into nature before. And that’s saying something, coming from me. This song is fucking weird, but it does continue the album’s trend of uncomfortable descriptions of sex: “hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / Hey, there’s the faucet.” He doesn’t go quite as far as working a ukulele into this stupid song—surprisingly, given how much he seems to throw everything at the wall on the previous tracks—, but this is still Justin doing his version of Jack Johnson.

Mark: This sounds like a parody of a mid-70s novelty song, covered by LFO.

5. Higher Higher

Josh: This is the most straightforward track so far, nicely guitar-driven and without the doohickey nonsense he’s been otherwise leaning on so hard. It’s also the most forgettable track so far in its blandness, so there’s that.

Mark: I think that this sounds the most like my personal understanding of what a JT song is, which is neither a compliment or an insult. The hooks are weak and I can’t imagine that I’ll remember it, but it’s a comprehensible album track. Every one of these songs feels about an hour long! This is a great album for people who are hoping to live forever by putting themselves through a series of unbearable experiences.

6. Wave

Josh: The opening riff of “Wave” flirts with country, but ends up in the pop-soul vein of a shittier Pharrell Williams. It’s a dull track that shows off Timberlake’s lazy lyricism when he sports a vaguely AAAAAA rhyme scheme on the refrain. This is a song about spending a night on a secluded island with the one you love, but so devoid of genuine romanticism that it almost makes me feel bad for Jessica Biel. There’s no evocation of the romantic beauty of nature like you get on something like Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” or even The Get Up Kids’ “Campfire Kansas.” At three minutes we get a whistling solo. There’s nothing better than a good whistling solo, but it needs to be a good whistling solo or you just sound like a dick. And as much as Justin probably wishes it, he’s no Bobby McFerrin.

Oh god, there are ten more songs on this trainwreck.

Mark: This is Justin Timberlake’s “Island In The Sun”. Every song on this album sounds like a sped-up cassette tape of a very bad late-70s R&B album.

7. Supplies

Josh: You know, if you changed all the lyrics and replaced Justin’s vocals with someone else’s—like, someone who wouldn’t name drop The Walking Dead—this could actually be a good song. Sure, the chorus doesn’t fit the verse at all, but the underlying beat is solid. On the other hand, Justin doing an approximation of Migos while bragging about being a “generous lover” and giving his wife multiple orgasms is probably the most embarrassing thing to happen so far on this album. This is a song about the apocalypse as romantic foray—something Thrice already did much better on their song “Stay with Me”—, and it kind of makes me wish Justin had locked himself in a bunker and not recorded this album. The most fun you’ll have with “Supplies” is repurposing the pre-chorus lyrics to the tune of Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”:

‘Cause I’ll be the light when you can’t see
I’ll be the wood when you need heat
I’ll be the generator, turn me
on when you need electricity
Some shit’s ’bout to go down,
I’ll be the one with the level head
[I’m everything I am, because I’m woodsy]
Mark: Hahahaha. I’m not going to write anything more entertaining than what Josh just wrote.

8. Morning Light (Feat. Alicia Keys)

Josh: This one is fine. I’ll credit Alicia Keys for that.

Mark: This is the most listenable track so far. Some nice guitar work on display and a reasonable series of hooks lifted from vintage soul music. Alicia Keys sounds great.

9. Say Something (Feat. Chris Stapleton)

Josh: Timberlake described the album before its release as “modern Americana with 808s.” This song is perhaps the best example of why those two things don’t work together, because you can’t make a sandwich out of peanut butter and olives—or you can try, but don’t try to tell me it’s not terrible. What is this song even about? “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all,” Timberlake and Stapleton sing on the song’s outro: it’s a kernel of nonsense, but advice I wish they’d taken.

Mark: Dude, you can sing Everlast to this one. And then you can sing Imagine Dragons to it. You know your album is in trouble when the most fun people can have with it is singing other songs that they hate while listening to it.

10. Hers (Interlude)

Josh: Oh, Jessica is back, talking about Justin’s shirts and how they make her “feel sexy, like a woman.” Alright, then.

Mark: This sounds like a commercial for some medication where they don’t even tell you what the medication is meant to treat in the commercial, but you just know that it’s something very embarrassing, and then at the end a voice says “Timbertrex may not be for everyone. Ask your doctor about Timbertrex.”

11. Flannel

Josh: And here we go, the song so hilariously named it launched a thousand parody track listings. Dumb name aside, “Flannel,” with its traditional sound, most closely captures the aesthetic I think Timberlake is going for with Man of the Woods. But its cheesy glee club breakdown and out-of-place drum & bass machine make it feel artificial as hell, like a $700 flannel shirt sold with a ‘worn in’ look. This is one that could actually benefit from a violin. It’s also another one that goes on a minute and a half too long, as it includes another Jessica interlude that couldn’t clash sonically more with the song it’s attached to if it tried.

Mark: “Flannel” sounds like the a college student using a spiritual folk standard to teach himself how to do multi-track recording for the first time. The layers of vocal overdubs absolutely smother any sincerity that could have existed in the track, and give an incredibly synthetic & packaged feel to what seems to have been a stab at rootsy authenticity. Boo!

12. Montana

Josh: “Montana” is by far the best track on the album so far, mostly because it’s only trying to be one thing: a straight disco track. Here all of the heavily-synthesized elements and Giorgio Moroder influence actually fit, and Timberlake’s vocal melodies are nicely embedded in them. This is good.

Mark: I agree with Josh. This is classic Justin Timberlake by way of the Drive soundtrack. He still sounds like he’s singing in a shower stall the whole time, though.

13. Breeze off the Pond

Josh: It took 45 minutes for the album to hit its stride, but it appears to have done so. “Breeze off the Pond” is a good song with a dumb title, with shades of “Montana”—a song which dovetails nicely into this one—and the harmonies of classic Timberlake & The Neptunes tracks like “Señiorita.” Maybe this is a bad album that could have been a good EP?

Mark: This is one of the better songs on this album, but the better songs on this album mostly sound like crappy Pharrell. More like breeze from my butt! HAHAHAHA!

14. Livin’ off the Land

Josh: This is the first track where the seemingly-incongruous musical elements actually feel assembled with any purpose. The spare guitar, strings, and jazz bass blend nicely with the fuzzy percussion and possibly synthetic pan flutes. On the other hand, this is also Justin Timberlake, one of the richest men in music, playing out his Ron Swanson fantasies and singing about having to spread out his bills on credit cars, which…fuck you dude for trying to tap into rural America in such a disingenuous way. He literally says “I’ll be a mountain man ’til the day I die.” I am 100% sure if he tried Justin would be savaged by a cougar. And what the fuck is he doing in this song yip yipping in the background like the martians from Sesame Street?

Mark: A cougar wouldn’t be needed to take Timberlake down in the mountains. He’d just croak from exposure within 30 hours. It sounds like this album was written after Justin and Jessica spent a really nice weekend glamping and felt a great sense of self-actualization as a result. I’m stunned by how much of this sounds like the worst Weezer songs from the last decade. I’m tempted to call this album “Rivers Cuomo goes Camping” from now on. I actually think that this song might sound alright if they stripped away about 19 vocal tracks, and all of the instrumentation except the strings and guitar.

15. The Hard Stuff

Josh: When Justin dropped the initial trailer for Man of the Woods, along with its track listing, there was much chatter from fans expecting that it would be a country album. It wasn’t, but this song gives you an impression of what it would have sounded like if it had been. And it is very bad. It kind of worked for John Mayer. It does not work for Justin Timberlake.

Mark: Holy fuck, this album is long. And bad. This is bad. It’s like taking the most tired songwriting tropes and running them through the most obnoxious modern pop production techniques. Who produced this?!

16. Young Man

Josh: We made it to the end, Mark. “Young Man” isn’t particularly a good song, but it’s a song written from a father to a son, and that’s kind of special. I won’t talk shit about it, although the sound clips of Justin and Jessica and their baby are really indulgent.

Mark: I hate you for asking me to do this.

The Verdict:

Josh: I counted two out of sixteen songs I actually liked, and they both sounded like old Justin Timberlake. Avoid this designer flannel, because it’s not substantial enough to keep you warm. And will someone for god’s sake rein this man in.

Mark: The year is young, but I sincerely hope that I can call this the worst album that I hear this year. This is embarrassing from front to back. Good lord.

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