It’s remarkable how few ideas are contained within this hour-plus Blue Ridge Mountains mood board of an album. Man of the Woods is a misstep large enough to merit relitigating Justin Timberlake’s status as a pop superstar. How much of his career should we chalk up to fortune, privilege, and an essential malleability? Is working with Pharrell Williams and Timbaland—pantheon-level producers who collaborated extensively with Timberlake at or near the peak of their powers, and continue to do so—an act of creative genius, or just kismet? There may be no definite answers. But Man of the Woods’ failure invites the questions.
Timberlake wants to be thought of as an innovator. He struck gold at the beginning of his solo career with “Cry Me a River,” an icy amalgam of beat-boxing and Gregorian chants that’s still thrilling 16 years later. He had the gall to name an album FutureSex/LoveSounds and filled it with pop inventive enough to live up to the title. He embraced auteurist extravagance across the messy, occasionally brilliant halves of The 20/20 Experience. When he unveiled Man of the Woods, his first album in five years, he framed his new music as the product of an audacious fusion of Southern sounds. Its problems invite the listener to scrap this narrative and stitch together a different story. Forget the album’s trailer—in which Timberlake comes out of the closet as a fire-building, creek-wading, baby-clutching Jeremiah Johnson cosplayer—or the baffling videos for singles like “Filthy” and the Migos-meets-preppers joint “Supplies.” It’s all there in the music: warm, indulgent, inert, and vacuous.
Man of the Woods rings hollow with familial contentment: Timberlake’s wife, the actress Jessica Biel, sings or speaks on a handful of tracks, and closer “Young Man” comes complete with a cooing feature from Timberlake’s toddler. Even the credits have a no-new-friends feel: The majority of the album was made in tandem with the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Danja, the chief architects of his sound from Justified onwards. Instead of surging forward with a new vision for pop music, it leans on the sounds and genres that have become American comfort food: country, soul, funk, disco, gospel.