Say what you want (and lots of people did) but Filthy by Justin Timberlake was a pretty great return bop. Stick with us here: it upended the expectations people had from old JT and his posh Centre Parcs retreat or whatever that trailer was, delivering a squelchy, funk-driven ride that you certainly couldn’t excuse of being predictable.
That’s the Justin Timberlake that shines on career curio Man Of The Woods. Even when the harmonica inserts itself rudely into Midnight Summer Jam – aka a joyous Let The Groove Get In 2.0 – it still works, purely for the energy of everything around it. Just like Montana (a career highlight), just like Breeze Off The Pond, it’s lithe, it’s luminous, it’s everything he should be doing right now.
Four out of 16 tracks isn’t bad… it’s just plain terrible from a man of his calibre. And it’s when he conforms to that trailer’s expectations that Justin Timberlake falls spectacularly flat, almost to the point of embarrassment. Supplies feel like a man high on his very own, a helium-filled ersatz Future wannabe essentially singing Cotton Eyed Joe. Sauce is totally bereft of any such savour, and the title track feels like an in-joke – surely something with that gritty a title could sound a little less like the depths of your local garden centre?
Honestly, it’s a wonder how some of this got past the label. We feel like even Timberlake himself will look back on a song like Wave and think, how in the motherfuck did anyone fall for this? And it’s hard not to lay blame at the door of The Neptunes, with both Chad Hugo and Pharrell perhaps reminding us why they’ve been absent for so long (or why they kept their more interesting stuff for their N.E.R.D album).
Other transgressions? Flannel, a MOR jam that sounds like the slow jiggling of a flaccid penis in the wind, The Hard Stuff seems like the most ironic title you could hope for, and neither Alicia Keys nor Chris Stapleton can rescue this tour brochure for a Disney depiction of a national park.
It’s hard to know what Justin Timberlake is trying to prove with this album. That he’s lost his ability to make a chart-friendly bop, perhaps, or that he has nothing of interest to say (“Success is cool, money is fine, but you’re special, another level,” is a choice gem from Higher Higher; let’s not even get started on the nadir that is Livin’ Off The Land). It is an utterly flaccid album, more cumbersexual than lumbersexual, full of misguided moments who keeps revealing himself to be more and more problematic as time goes by. Man of the woods he may be, but out of the woods his career most certainly is not.