In the pop music world, where everyone wants to stay young forever, Justin Timberlake couldn’t wait to grow up. At 37, he’s been in the public eye for 25 years now, perpetually working very hard to convince us that he was older and more sophisticated than his age. When he was in The Mickey Mouse Club, he was already plotting his pop stardom. While in NSYNC, he dreamed of a solo career, determined to shake off the stigma of being a boy-band lightweight — or worse, the dumped boyfriend of bigger star (and fellow Mickey Mouse alum) Britney Spears. (Part of the image revamp involved playing up the fact that he was a bad boy, even bragging to a New York radio station that he’d gone down on Spears: “I did it. I’m dirty.”)
But soon, even a solo career wasn’t enough. Since his 2002 multi-platinum debut Justified established his artistic bona fides, he’s constantly sought to remind listeners that he wasn’t some kid — always inventing a sexier or classier version of himself that outshone the previous model. If Justified was primo Michael Jackson-retro pop, then 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds was futuristic R&B, which was followed by 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, where he tried to merge Sinatra swagger with cutting-edge hooks. (And that’s not even mentioning branching out into acting in Oscar-winning dramas like The Social Network.) Female pop stars have to worry about aging and losing their allure — meanwhile, Justin Timberlake has been breezily plotting his journey to becoming a Grown Ass Man.
That trajectory, however, has to reach an end point eventually, and it seems to have arrived in the form of his sonically accomplished, stylistically adventurous and utterly blah Man of the Woods. No longer pretending to be older than he really is, he comfortably plunges into the simple pleasures of domesticity, embracing late-30s life with a wife, a kid and the realization that he’s rich beyond his wildest imagination. All his life, Timberlake has looked toward the horizon. On Man of the Woods, he’s kicking back and taking it easy. He’s never sounded happier — which is good for him, but hell on his music.
Pop is filled with cautionary tales about “edgy” artists who went soft after they pledged allegiance to the Dad Life: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Timberlake’s buddy Jay-Z. The whole concept behind the derogatory term Dad Rock is the belief that, if it’s predominantly dads who like your music, your music is now officially lame. Ageism has something to do with that, but there’s also the irrefutable proof that songs about being lonely and/or horny and/or angry are more exciting than songs about holding your newborn and/or being content in your marriage and/or loving your life. Everybody can relate to the former feelings — the latter experiences are much rarer, and honestly, it’s annoying to hear happy people expound on how happy they are.
Timberlake leans into this pop-star midlife crisis on Man of the Woods by shape-shifting yet again. Whether it’s the album title, cover art or the promotional video advertising the record’s arrival, it’s very clear that Man of the Woods is Timberlake’s return-to-my-roots move. Growing up outside Memphis, Tennessee, a region steeped in blues, country and soul, Timberlake has made no secret of his desire to integrate those throwback styles into his recent music. “It sounds more like where I’ve come from than any other music I’ve ever made,” he said a year ago about his album. “It’s Memphis. It’s Southern American music. But I want to make it sound modern — at least that’s the idea right now.”
Quotes like that, in conjunction with Man of the Woods’ early promotional blitz (including holding a record-release party that was forest-themed), inspired The Outline’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot to speculate that Timberlake was “rebranding as a white man” after years of glomming off of black genres like R&B and hip-hop, going country to synthesize realness in his music. But now that I’ve heard Man of the Woods, the strategy seems less about any so-called stab for authenticity and more about Timberlake trying to reconnect with his mythical, middle-America upbringing.
On the album, he’s not playing the superstar anymore — he’s just a regular guy with a family who, as he titles one song, is “Livin’ Off the Land.” Twangy guitars, a conspicuous appearance from outlaw-country superstar Chris Stapleton and a song that disparages “that fancy record company man” are all meant to suggest that the older, wiser Timberlake has discovered what really matters. And like a lot of new dads, he won’t shut up about it.
The phenomenon of the Insufferable New Dad is nothing new. Years ago, comic Paul F. Tompkins did a whole bit on the familiar, painfully earnest spiel each of his buddies would spout after they became fathers. (“I can’t believe I made this person. … I never thought I could love anything this much. … I realized I would take a bullet for my kid.”) Man of the Woods is a whole album of that bit done completely straight, especially the moment when Tompkins sarcastically tells his pals, “Congratulations, you’re the first person in the world to ever have a child. Be sure to watch for yourself on the news later.”
Timberlake has revealed that the album title is, itself, a vicious act of New Dad Behavior. His young son is named Silas, which, adapted from Latin, means “of the forest.” Hence, Timberlake hasn’t just gone all woodsy on us — he’s also the literal man/father of the woods/Silas.
Of course, what’s always elevated Timberlake’s music is his cheeky confidence — his bulletproof, seductive belief in his effortless, cocky appeal. The Timberlake of Man of the Woods tries to recapture that guy in spots, perhaps because he’s self-conscious about not being a kid anymore. “Haters gonna say it’s fake!” he taunts on the opening track, the lumpy mixture of Vegas razzle-dazzle and post-FutureSex funk that constitutes the lead single “Filthy.” Just about nothing else on Man of the Woods sounds like “Filthy,” and it feels like a leftover from his past — an era he’s now aged out of.
Much of the album is littered with Real America pandering. In “Livin’ Off the Land,” he casts himself as a fictional blue-collar dude buried in credit card debt trying to provide for his family. “I’ll be a mountain man till I die,” he informs us, before asking his long-suffering wife, “Why you waste what you ain’t got / on that Powerball?” This glib amalgam of ordinary-folks cultural touchstones extends throughout Man of the Woods, which pointedly rejects such hoity-toity things as cellphones, fly-by-night love affairs and celebrity. “Y’all can’t do better than this / Act like the South ain’t the shit,” he brags in “Midnight Summer Jam,” sounding as thirsty for his hometown as he once did for sex on Justified.
The cringe-factor only gets worse. On the rustic album-closer “Young Man,” Timberlake serenades his son, providing such lame fatherly advice as “If you wanna make God smile / make plans” and “You don’t understand / Right now, you’re a young man / You gonna have to stand for something.” (This is also the song where we get to hear Silas coo a little baby talk over the opening, the aural equivalent of oversharing baby photos on Facebook.) And while everybody’s allowed to find personal happiness — it’s worth remembering Timberlake’s own father left when he was two — the cutesy factor of Man of the Woods is off-the-charts, especially when his wife Jessica Biel intones the intimate TMI poem “Hers (Interlude),” all about how much she loves wearing her husband’s clothes. (“When I wear his shirt, it feels like his skin over mine,” she whispers conspiratorially. “It makes me feel like a woman, it makes me feel sexy … it makes me feel like I’m his.”)
As a guy who’s been married nearly 12 years, I’m all for songs from people in long-term relationships that discuss the ebbs and flows of a committed relationship. In fact, I’m a sucker for them: They’re a reminder that my wife and I aren’t alone in navigating what’s amazing and also so strange and challenging about marriage. But the domesticity of Man of the Woods isn’t a balm or even that interesting. When Timberlake outlines the challenges and rewards of his marriage on Man of the Woods, the knee-jerk cockiness of his youth pokes through, leaving any traces of attempted vulnerability feeling utterly forced. On “The Hard Stuff,” he admits that “Anybody can be in love on a sunny day,” but his Hallmark-y verses about weathering storms and realizing “I’m not the man that I want to be” feel so generic it’s hard to imagine he’s actually articulating a specific, lived-in relationship.
Timberlake has said that Man of the Woods is a more “personal album,” which is exactly what pop artists declare around the halfway point of their popularity. Does the record sound great? Definitely: Timberlake and his longtime producers the Neptunes and Timbaland haven’t suddenly lost the ability to craft incredibly hooky songs. The whole thing sounds so good, in fact, that it’s part of the problem. Swirling from pop to Stevie Wonder soul to back-porch folk, Man of the Woods is a tuneful but oddly complacent record. Its sonics are adventurous, but its ideas — about fatherhood, about marriage, about getting older — are so boring that it almost retroactively makes you wonder what Timberlake has been building toward all along.
He’s always wanted to be a grownup, but now that he’s there, the only thing he’s succeeded in is making an album your dad might like.