Justin Timberlake doesn't need music. After successfully transitioning from boy-band heartthrob to adult pop star on Justified, FutureSex/LoveSounds staked his claim as an Artist. Following a succession of acting roles, the overstuffed and underdeveloped double shot, The 20/20 Experience, felt like an indulgent, if deserved victory lap. Timberlake could have ambled off into a Hollywood sunset knowing that he had shattered the mould *N'Sync had cast for him.
Instead, we get Man of the Woods, a record whose title suggests a figure emerging after a long period of self-reflection, its bizarre trailer hinting at a rootsy new sound. It is, in fact, neither. Instead we get a Timberlake who seems keen to sink his teeth into something meaty, yet neither he, nor his prodigious collaborators, are able to come up with anything new or weighty.
Timbaland gets four production credits, none of which rivals his past heights with or without Timberlake. Throwing back to the future-funk of FutureSex/LoveSounds, "Filthy," the record's first single and opening cut, teases at its fixation on sex and love. But as more than one internet commentator has noted, it's proclamation that "this ain't the clean version" is belied by its decidedly PG lyrics.
The same can be said for much of the record, which confidentially captures that first kiss before making a hard cut to the morning after, leaving everything in between to the listener's imagination. "Let's make some new details, just for your journal," teases Timberlake on "Sauce," later directing his paramour to "Right behind my left pocket, that's is where you'll feel my soul," on "Flannel." 50 Shades this ain't.
On the album's back half we get glimpses into his life with wife Jessica Biel and their young son, to whom he pays tribute on the record's sweet final track, "Young Man." Clearly there's a desire to reflect on his role as a husband and father. But his fame and his (perfectly natural) desire not to reveal too much of himself is the record's biggest impediment.
Timberlake is, above all else, a performer, and in that regard he continues to excel — he hits every note, sells every line, but at no point feels like he's pushing himself. The same goes for the battalion of songwriters, producers and guest musicians brought in to help. Alicia Keys ("Morning Light") and Chris Stapleton ("Say Something") are the only credited guests, and similarly deliver their services with an air of staid professionalism.
But it's the Neptunes, working with Timberlake for the first time since 2002's Justified, who really disappoint. While the funky "Midnight Summer Jam" is a fun distraction, much of the rest of their contributions dabble in light, tropical flourishes. Slight and safe, they feel oddly out of step, yet of a piece with the current rash of tropical house tunes cluttering the Top 40. Meanwhile, the title track, with its questionable assertion that "If I take it too far, that's okay because you know I hear the making up's fun" is perhaps the most egregious example of how far the collaboration has fallen.
Immaculately produced and performed, it's hard to imagine Man of the Woods not being a hit, its tracks a steady stream for playlist fodder. But sound and feel are no substitute for soul. As he and Stapleton put it, "Say something, say something, say something…" (RCA)