Trailers for movie tentpoles blow up the internet on a regular basis, but it’s not every day, or even every decade, that a trailer for an album has the same effect. So it was newsworthy in early January when Justin Timberlake’s minute-long video teaser for “Man of the Woods” was met with the same blogger fascination that might’ve greeted a “Star Wars” preview that had a perceived canonical error. The “Suit & Tie” guy now wanted us to picture him in leather and fringe, standing in rivers below snowy mountains, with every indication he’d be downplaying his signature R&B for a folksy roots move, if not going country. “It’s meant to be heard outside even more than inside,” Timberlake revealed in a subsequent clip, while a track list revealed earth-dad titles like “Livin’ off the Land” and “Montana.” We had every reason to believe he’d be flying the flannel, because, well, he was coming out with a song called “Flannel.”
There was just one problem with this narrative, which you’ve already guessed if you’ve heard “Filthy” and “Supplies,” the first couple of singles to be released from the album: The music is as studiously funk-soul as ever. Sure, it’s Americana, if old Michael Jackson and Chic records are Americana. As promised, Timberlake does bring in Chris Stapleton, the Southern belter he helped turn into a country superstar, for three co-writes and a duet. But you’ll have to have serious powers of excavation to pick out the country elements in that or any of the tracks that have all-star helmers Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Danja mixing ’70s R&B revivalism with every contemporary trick of the rhythmic trade. Timberlake may aspire to be a dude of the timber, but his super-producers remain urban men of steel.
The lowdown is that if you can get past the marketing (which is, admittedly, a tall order), and maybe avoid listening to many of the lyrics or any of the spoken asides (which we’ll get to in a minute), it’s hard to imagine anyone who ever liked Timberlake not having a blast for most of the duration of “Man of the Woods.” Much of it is due to the dominance of the Neptunes, aka the team of Williams and Chad Hugo, whose nine new songs with Timberlake mark the first time they’ve worked with him since his solo debut, “Justified,” in 2002. Their canny collaborations have a fleetness of foot that extends to the economy of song lengths; while nearly all of the tracks on Timberlake’s 2013 album “20/20 Experience” clocked in at more than seven minutes, only one out of 16 on the new one even crosses the five-minute barrier. A not-too-secret weapon here — since Timberlake gives the instrumentalist a shout-out at one point — is guitarist Elliott Ives, who provides more slinky rhythmic lines than anybody since Nile Rodgers. But the Neptunes are all about the electronica when it comes to the rhythm section, creating sounds that break down the barrier between fake bass and faux drums, while sampled background chants sputter from speaker to speaker.
Timberlake reserves a special credit for himself for producing all his own vocals, and you can see why he’d take enough pride in that to not want to share that particular glory with Williams, Timbaland, et al. He knows he’ll never match his soul heroes in pure power, but his gift for arranging and stacking his falsetto in hurried settings is so much fun that it never seems presumptuous when he keeps reminding us what a good time we’re all having. He’s ballad-avoidant these days — with such a happy life on the ranch, rivers are strictly for wading in, not crying — but he can still strike up a healthy variety across 16 tracks, from the swooshy space funk of “Filthy” to the strictly retro Commodores party that is “Midnight Summer Jam” to the Caribbean reggae of “Wave” to the album’s alternately sexy-cute and brooding duets with Alicia Keys and Stapleton, “Morning Light” and “Say Something.”
But if the pre-release buzz has you looking for, as they used to say, “both styles of music, Country and Western,” those are absent, apart from some Stapleton growls and guitar grit that hint at the long history of Nashville/Memphis crossover. Which is not to say that the infamous teaser trailer was a complete fake-out. As the album continues, the promises of parties that go on till six in the morning recede, and Timberlake takes to writing more about his bucolic life on that Montana ranch with Jessica Biel — or Jessica Timberlake, as she’s billed for the multiple spoken-word appearances she makes, playing the mystical rural muse and/or mother to their 2-year-old son, Silas. The final track, “Young Man,” has Timberlake doling out banal life advice to his kid (“When you fall, you don’t have to stay down.… If you want to make God smile, make plans”) even as we hear the Timberlakes teaching him to say, “I love you, Daddy,” in real time. This is not as risible as the minute-long interlude in which Mrs. Timberlake discusses how sexy she feels wearing her husband’s shirt. (And you thought interludes were already an ignoble genre.)
Certainly these TMI moments will help make the performer an easy target, which he probably didn’t need after that inadvisably earnest trailer, or the horrendous video for “Supplies,” which squandered a vast budget on a dystopian mess that seemed designed mostly to make him look woke to racial and feminist causes. These all add up, paradoxically, to a guy who’s so completely expert at sketch comedy not always having a sense of when his most serious moments also come off like straight-faced skits.
And yet there are plenty of reasons to like “Man of the Woods,” not least that it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. Although he’s not really mixing musical genres as originally promised, he’s mixing up some music and lyrics that shouldn’t really go together, which makes this one crazy peanut butter cup of an album — at least by the time it gets to Timberlake sincerely extolling “Flannel,” accompanied by such trademark R&B that you’re still convinced he must be singing in praise of “Chanel.” It’s the utterly weird boldness of Timberlake figuratively dragging Pharrell and Danja into the middle of a frosty field that makes the album memorable. This is undeniably the real him right now — funkster, family man, firewalker — so as long as we don’t want to stop the feeling, maybe we can allow him his woodsman privilege.
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