By Nathan C. Vance
Man of the Woods? That’s what I thought the day the album trailer dropped. It was strange to see for a couple of reasons. First, I’d never really been witness to an album trailer but JT takes near decades between releases so it’s wise for him to pre-launch to drum up interest. Second, I really thought I was seeing the precursor for a country, soul, modern pop blended album. I thought the trailer was decent (though the tasseled jacket dancing in a field seemed a bit inauthentic) but I love JT and have since adolescence so, rather than waste time with apprehension, I got really excited. I also see the value in one reinventing his self after two decades in the spotlight.
People who know me best will tell you that I’m mismatched for modern times. One of my favorite people in the world, my Aunt Holly, took to calling me an old soul long before I could drive. I’m a bit of a hippie, especially when it comes to my music. I love Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and especially The Beatles. I’ll be the first to tell you that the sound was just better in their era. The songs were poems and the talent didn’t HAVE to be studio manufactured. So, my love for Justin Timberlake tends to catch people off guard. But I can tell you, it’s real, and I get nearly irrationally excited when he announces new music.
In the modern era, he’s by far my favorite. He’s a smooth dancer, an effortless singer, an all-time stage performer, and he writes music like a snob. I mean, he has a good filter and superb taste. His sound makes It clear to me that our influences aren’t that far apart. Bottom line, he would have been a mega star in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, has been since the 90s, and I can only guess that he will be in the future. So many acts are restricted to their era but his talent transcends. That sometimes curses him in his own time because he doesn’t cater to the whims of the masses, he just does him. And I appreciate someone that’s willing to do that. That may prevent his videos from hitting the billion view mark on YouTube but his success speaks for itself.
Back to Man of the Woods. I was really readying myself for a more country side of JT. I planned on listening to an album where Chris Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey would somehow feel at home. Then I heard “Filthy.” Nope, not a country album. The first single sounded like it belonged on Future Sex/Love Sounds. That bothered some critics. Why? That was a great album! I get the argument that it’s old and JTs “been there, done that,” but I would argue that What’s Goin On was also a great album and recreating some of its magic today would make for classic music, not old. Now, comparing those albums might be a bit of a stretch but you see the point. Reaching back to reconnect with the audience doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Filthy” isn’t the best song in the history of pop music nor is it among JT’s finest compositions but it is the type of edgy dance music that has earned praise for the mega star through the years. At worst, it checked a box called staying power for Timberlake.
And then I heard “Supplies.” I didn’t get it. The most heaping praise I can give it is that the hook is catchy but the sound feels like the singer playing his favorite character. I knew instantly that it belonged in the world of top 40, but it was further down my list of JT hits than was “Filthy.” It’s not a total miss, but certainly not a home run. The compliment that I’ll give is that I can’t place this sound anywhere else within his now exhaustive catalog. Kudos for risk taking.
The third brush with Man of the Woods was the big surprise, “Say Something” with Chris Stapleton. This unexpected hit hit my pallet like black coffee. At first take, it was so foreign to my expectation that I couldn’t like it and didn’t want to accept it. I saw the incredible video and decided it deserved a fairer chance. After all, this wasn’t an album designed around my expectations. So I listened and listened, and eventually I heard it. This is the one. My greatest criticism of JT has always been his lack of social message in his music. I’ve been waiting for years for his Sam Cooke “A Change is Gonna Come” moment. This is it. While “Say Something” fails to really say something, it does point to an identity of a maturing young man who sees the brokenness of the world and recognizes that sometimes emotional responses only emblazon the problem. This is a smashing, resounding success! This is why this album had to be. If this were the only track on Man of the Woods, it would still render the project a success.
And then the cheeky fourth single bearing the album‘s name came. It’s catchy and playful. It has some of the overused JT one-liner lyrics that can easily turn people off, but it also has the relational aspect of a former sex symbol turned husband and dad. It’s the right choice for a single and a fun one. It’s my favorite song to sing along with. It’s happy without being corny. It’s sexy without being raunchy. It’s a song from a man in a new phase of life. JT isn’t a 25 year old, recreational drug-using, womanizing playboy. He’s a dad that misses his occasional Friday and Saturday nights while remaining grateful for the incredible family waiting for him at home. This title track represents the remainder of the LP well. And I get it because, I’m him. The life he leads, the place he’s at is the place I’m at. It’s not the JT of old, it’s the new JT writing for Jessica and Silas. It may not impress the mainstream music media but it relates like crazy with me.
The rest of the album has plenty of high notes. “Wave” is fun, “Higher Higher” is straight out of the 70s, “Sauce” makes you feel so good, “Morning Light” makes my wife and I slow dance, “Flannel” is pure Americana, and, then, the album crescendos with the perfect glimpse into what makes the pop star tick with the song “Young Man.” It’s my personal favorite for a lot of reasons but particularly because, in it, I can hear the conversations I’ve had and will have in the future with my own beautiful young man. I will specifically emphasize lessons that “will make God smile.” Imagine if all young men were raised with that thought and hope in mind. Bravo!
In the end, Man of the Woods didn’t mark the beginning of a musical or dance revolution, and it wasn’t written with the intent of flipping the entire sonic script in which we listen, but it was written by a 37-year-old dad who is self-aware and transparent. JT is a victim of the expectations he created when he was a much younger man who wasn’t bound by family and responsibility. He can’t be that guy anymore and this album couldn’t be those. This is the sound that marks his personal evolution. It is exactly what it needs to be. Rolling Stone and Huffington Post may disagree but I give this 5 stars and 2 thumbs up for being an honest and calming voice in a chaotic world.