Justin Timberlake needs a new brand manager.
All semiotic signifiers associated with the “SexyBack” singer’s fifth album suggest the former N’Sync-er is eschewing slick R&B-infused pop and making a down-home family man record that embraces his Tennessee roots.
The album is called Man of the Woods (RCA ** 1/2). Its cover features the 37-year-old singer in a beard, jeans, and leather jacket, sitting on the bed of a pickup truck. The album features contributions from his burly country singing buddy Chris Stapleton. Song titles such as “Montana,” “Breeze off the Pond” and “Livin’ off the Land” sound like they’re going to be the soundtrack to a Grizzly Adams adventure.
But never fear: The former Mouseketeer has not gone full-frontal Bon Iver. Timberlake — who will be the halftime entertainment at Super Bowl LII, as he was with Janet Jackson when the Panthers played the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII — is too cautious for that. And also too comfortable with — and adept at — the kind of twitchy dance music collaborations with beatmakers like the Neptunes and Timbaland to abandon that signature style.
And, really, there’s no reason he should. As long as you don’t listen to the lyrics closely, Man of the Woods is pretty much pleasurable all the way through. The confusion stems from the mixed signals. What seemed like it was going to be an Americana-ish collection of songs about maturity and fatherhood — Timberlake’s wife, Jessical Biel, and son Silas are heard on the album — instead kicks off with the enticing robo-funk of “Filthy.”
The video clip for “Supplies” begins with Timberlake gazing at a bank of TV screens bombarding him with the contentious signs of the times — protesters in the street, Harvey Weinstein — and then plays out in apocalyptic urban chase scenes. It’s a long way from the rural route.
Musically, Timberlake moves in a hybrid middle ground that often pays dividends. When he’s being a little bit country, he digs down into old-school R&B seasoned grooves. “Montana” turns out to be a supple jam that’s more about sweaty nights under a disco ball than roaming free in Big Sky country.
Where Man of the Woods fails is in its ultra-banal lyrics. Timberlake hyped the album as being especially “personal,” but his efforts to communicate something all grown up and mature results in cliches like “We’re getting better, aging like your favorite wine” in “Wave” and the clumsy “I brag about you to anyone outside / I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride” in the title cut.
“Say Something” is an inviting duet with Stapleton, but it backs away from uttering anything of consequence, dubiously proposing that “the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”