Man Of The Woods (Sony)
Even before he (underwhelmingly) performed at the Super Bowl in the home city of Prince - a man let’s remember, who crossed musical boundaries regularly, and incidentally sang live while doing so - Justin Timberlake was wearing the C word on his head. Or maybe the CA words.
Timberlake riding on the back of sharper, more talented, more original artists whose skin colour made them that little bit less marketable? More insultingly, Timberlake affecting language, moves and attitudes of a culture he can shed like a skin?
Cultural appropriation is a loaded phrase to throw around but is a serious discussion to be had – though maybe not best done by this writer (brown is not yet the new black; there ain’t no one stealing Mauritian culture for big bucks just yet, etc) necessarily. So Iggy Azalea can sit down for the moment.
For now let’s settle for the question of whether the artist taking on a sound/genre/style/culture feels (a) genuinely interested in it (b) believable and (c) any good. Relevant questions in an album purportedly oriented to roots, or at least a melding of country and R&B, with stories from his “real” life.
If it’s arguable that Timberlake has any claim on the R&B/hip hop/black culture he has parlayed into stardom – and retains as the base material of this new record - in theory it’s perfectly acceptable for Timberlake, who grew up in the south and is white, to sing “country”, to suggest an affinity with “real” things and to claim he is a “man of the woods”.
To which I say, yeah, whatever. Firstly, the country here is low-key, if not low-rent, not really more than less rhythm-focused pop and not where you might expect it to be.
The title track has harmonies, warm-ribbed bass and a light dusting of Los Angeles even as Timberlake speaks of his Tennessee roots. Say Something, with currently hot-as country artist Chris Stapleton is more Boys II Men smoothness than any Music Row manoeuvrings.
More like it is Flannel, which feels like a day at church for the Bee Gees, and especially The Hard Stuff, which really does sound like one of those earnest semi-ballads men in hats sing so they can be described as heartfelt, complete with acoustic and slide guitar, and the vocals less obviously treated to give it something like a natural tone.
However, there’s no evidence that Timberlake and his hired hands have any particular feel for the non-R&B moves here, and certainly no evidence that he’s gone all-in at any point.
What about the messaging lyrically? The nods to hardscrabble living, salt-of-the-earth people and the presumably autobiographical bits are in one sense perfectly in tune with corporate country music. That is, pro forma, cliched-to-buggery and about as believable as a Keith Urban song. Which is to say, not at all. Move on, nothing to see here.
One song though which sticks out, especially in the week of the Super Bowl, is the album’s closing track, Young Man. Featuring both the voice of his young son and his wife, the actor Jessica Biel, it purports to be his words of wisdom to the man-to-be on how to be a man.
Among them is advice on how to find and treat a woman, including “you’re going to have to stand for something”. Which is kinda cute for the bloke who skirted most of the opprobrium and actually thrived from the nipplegate Super Bowl controversy which effectively sidelined Janet Jackson’s career 14 years ago, while saying next to nothing in her defence and watching her go down hard for it.
Still, for all the perceived sins of the past or present, Timberlake’s biggest problem here is how off the pace the material - the familiar R&B areas of his previous four albums - is.
Sex, robo-rhythms, nods to the 1980s, a splash of rock, easy moments melodies, a flash of falsetto (see also: nods to the 1980s), a moment for the romantics among us. Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep and yep. There is nothing new here, which is disappointing; there is nothing great here, which is damaging.
Timberlake’s infrequent forays into music last yielded an absolute top shelf song in 2013’s Suit & Tie, a standout also given that the bulk of the songs from its host album, the first of the double The 20/20 Experience set, took moves into older forms of pop, rock and R&B but never re-engaged with excellence.
Man Of The Woods is similarly afflicted: some perfectly fine work; some expertly constructed modern pop – but where’s the edge, the flair, the wonder? Lost in the woods perhaps?
As he showed in his half time performance at the Super Bowl which climaxed with a “duet” with the sound and image of Minneapolis’ greatest figure, Prince, Timberlake is a talented dancer, a reasonable singer, a very good showman, a man indebted to the past – not just his own – and someone not likely to stand out from the best when compared.