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Review: Justin Timberlake is a song-and-dance sham on the faux-folksy 'Man of the Woods'

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When Justin Timberlake suggests he's going back to his roots -- as he has in regards to his new album, "Man of the Woods" -- what should we take that to mean?

Sure, the pop superstar was born in Memphis, where he says he learned to sing by soaking up Southern music by Johnny Cash and Al Green.

But Timberlake spent a goodly stretch of his youth as a cast member on "The All New Mickey Mouse Club," which means that show business was at least as crucial to his foundation as any fishing trips he may have taken with his beloved grandpappy.

And what are the hallmarks of a career in show business, particularly for a young performer? Flexibility and adaptability -- skills Timberlake later put to use in 'N Sync as that typically mutable boy band moved with assurance from sleek Europop to glistening white soul to squirming electronic funk.

It's that background that truly shaped the 37-year-old entertainer, who is set this weekend to play the Super Bowl halftime show for the third time. And it's that song-and-dance man who we hear most clearly on "Man of the Woods," Timberlake's expertly appointed but emotionally inert homage to the place that he says made him.

For Timberlake, the American South may be home. But more than that it's a collection of sounds and gestures -- another piece of "sonic real estate," as he put it in a recent interview with Apple's Zane Lowe, just waiting to be colonized.

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As always, his development of the place is an impressive, if shallow, aesthetic achievement. (Think of Timberlake as the Rick Caruso of big-ticket pop.)

Working primarily with his old friends Timbaland and the Neptunes, he blends gleaming synths with lush country vocal harmonies and layers twangy guitars over percolating electronic beats in tunes like "Flannel" and "Livin' Off the Land."

Chris Stapleton stops by for a duet on "Say Something," extending the bromance that began when Timberlake joined the bearded country star on the CMA Awards stage in 2015; Stapleton co-wrote two additional songs on "Man of the Woods," including "Morning Light," a shuffling soul cut featuring Alicia Keys.

Raphael Saadiq, the great R&B veteran, is also in the mix, playing deeply funky bass in "Wave" -- one more sign that Timberlake will spare no expense to get the stage dressing right.

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