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

None of this, apart from the trap-inspired "Supplies," has much to do with the current Top 40. That comes as something of a surprise given the obvious thirst for a hit the singer demonstrated less than two years ago when he reteamed with Max Martin, his former 'N Sync producer, for the precision-crafted "Can't Stop the Feeling!" (At that time Timberlake told me he'd been working on more music with Martin and Martin's producing partner, Shellback, neither of whom are credited on "Man of the Woods.")

But that's OK. Sometimes an artist needs to venture from the established path to find his way to somewhere more personal or idiosyncratic.

Only that's not what happens here.

As clever as the production can be, "Man of the Woods" contains Timberlake's least convincing singing; in song after song, there's a glazed-over quality to his vocals that defeats the idea that he's drawing from some raw-water reservoir of cherished down-home memories.

And his lyrics are even worse, with flimsy cliches about country life -- "Breeze Off the Pond" rhymes that phrase with "trees on the lawn" -- and no shortage of condescension to those well-meaning simpletons struggling out in the heartland.

"Sometimes it's hard / The backed-up bills on the credit card," he actually sings in "Livin' Off the Land," which opens, believe it or not, with a bit of sound from the History Channel's "Mountain Men."

In "Flannel," the ratty shirt in question serves as a metaphor for the comfort that Timberlake and his wife, Jessica Biel (who delivers a spoken intro), provide each other.

But again Timberlake's language is so faux-folksy -- there's mention of a "fancy record company man" -- that all you hear is his remove from the world he says he's trying to honor.

So why is Timberlake so much less successful in this mode than in the others he's taken up?

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Maybe he thought he didn't need to work as hard as he has in the past, since this is familiar territory. Maybe he oversold the album's concept in the unintentionally laughable video clip he used to announce "Man of the Woods," which had him inhaling campfire smoke and striking messianic poses in a river.

Or maybe he's conflicted about his real feelings on the South. This week, several news outlets reported that Timberlake had co-written the scuzzy "Sauce" with Toby Keith, the polarizing (and often misunderstood) country star known for playing President Trump's inauguration concert last year.

Keith isn't credited in the album's liner notes, but his name does appear in an entry for the song on ASCAP's website. Timberlake's representatives didn't respond within 24 hours to my request for clarification on the matter, which raises the possibility that, with Keith, Timberlake got more of a red-state assist than he bargained for.

That's how this Southern misadventure comes across anyway: as a flashy Hollywood depiction full of local color but minus any feeling for the complexity of the place.

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