Justin Timberlake has built a career — several careers, really — on making it all look easy. Where other superstars take care to show at least an occasional flash of fallibility, the struggle and sweat behind the hits, he glides through every stadium tour and SNL skit with the serene gleam of a born showman. It’s brought him to a place at the top of the pyramid that few ever get to see the view from, a multihyphenate whose music and movies and Jimmy Fallon comedy bits have made him not just a brand name but a sort of falsettoed mascot for American pop culture supremacy.
So when he dropped the news of his fifth solo studio album in a minute-long promotional video earlier this month, the vision it presented felt like a hard swerve toward something new: Gazing soulfully from a series of slow-pan landscapes (rural roadways, galloping horses, sun spilling through corn stalks), Timberlake, in his Navajo blankets and craggy beard, appeared to be Bon Iver-ing himself right before our eyes. Forget everything you thought you knew, the clip seemed to say, about the Tiger Beat pinup of *NSYNC or the slick lothario SexyBacking in a Gucci suit; here’s the real Tennessee kid, a rustic, contemplative Man of the Woods.
Then came the lead single, “Filthy,” and it was…not woodsy. Over squelched synths and a panting electro-boogie beat, he crooned about swagger and 6 a.m. ragers and asked (rhetorically? hopefully), “Whatcha gonna do with all that meat?” The internet, as it does, took note of the dissonance; was New Justin actually just Old Justin, with a thin whiff of campfire smoke? After all, nearly every track was co-credited to longtime collaborators Timbaland, Danja, and the Neptunes, whose work has always fallen firmly in his sweet spot: ergonomic R&B with one foot in wriggling retro funk and one in the future.
Whatever all the sheepskin and heritage talk promised — a manifesto on manhood, marriage, and intimacy; a megastar stripped back to his roots — isn’t really what Woods delivers. Instead it’s a grab bag of styles and sonic mood boards: “Supplies,” a skittering, country-grammared come-on, uses survivalism as a pickup line (if you need a generator, girl, just ask); the guitar-fuzzed strut “Sauce” wouldn’t feel wrong on a ’90s Lenny Kravitz B side; “Montana” sounds less like a day on the ranch than a night at the Roxbury, or at least the after-party. He finds worthy counterparts on the dreamy Alicia Keys duet “Morning Light” and scruffy back-porch rambler “Say Something,” with Nashville outlaw Chris Stapleton. But several cameos from his actress wife Jessica Biel and their toddler son mostly serve to reinforce his domestic bliss; milk for breakfast and champagne in the afternoon, no spilled Lemonade. Even the tender “Flannel” feels less confessional than laid-bare ballads like 2006’s “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows” or 2013’s “Mirrors.” What’s strangest, maybe, is that almost nothing on Woods nods to the evolution of pop music in the five years since he last released a record. Once an artist who reshaped the contours of the Hot 100, Timberlake now seems content to ride out his own scenic route, as blithe and unknowable as he’s ever been. B