Key Tracks: “Supplies,” “Breeze off the Pond”
Let’s be perfectly clear here – this iteration of Renaissance Man Justin Timberlake is different than the one we saw on 2013’s double “The 20/20 Experience.” We know this because of the cover, where a picture of him in a suit is cut by him(/someone) in jeans and flannel, and also because he told us. In reality, our “Renaissance Man” doesn’t have many hats on his rack. This album (somehow only his fourth solo work) proves that he is incapable of stretching out of pop’s limitations, even if he stretches those limitations in multiple directions. He’s a great singer, better dancer and one-time denim enthusiast, but he’s only a decent songwriter and remains vapidly unaware of both boundaries and genre authenticity.
This album actually has some great moments – at 16 songs and 66 minutes, it has to. But we need to dive into the album’s most egregious moments, most of which work to actively discredit the title and premise. Timberlake is a Memphis native – a city within state lines of the country’s best music city. And he attempts to use that heritage to prove that he has a woodsy background; a background that rarely shows its face throughout the album. This should be an easy sell for an ambitious and malleable artist who could cherrypick collaborators. I mean, the guy has “timber” and “lake” in his name. Instead, tracks like opener “Filthy” and “Morning Light” fall back on pop conventions, which are decidedly un-woodsy. The latter features Alicia Keys, who had a massive hit about her home city of New York, a city so decisively un-woodsy that a salsa company ran a whole ad campaign about it. The album’s front half features some songs that are pure pop and, even though he grows into the image more as it transpires, it starts the album off with a joltingly off-brand start.
Also, I have to talk about the filthy lyrics. I’m not even referring to the song “Filthy.” I’m referring to the back-to-back genital-drying lyrics of “Sauce” and “Man of the Woods.” Early on in “Sauce,” Timberlake sings “I love your pink, you like my purple / The color right between those, that’s where I worship.” Ewwwwwwww. And it only gets worse, a whole lot worse on the following track. The song is about the mutual love he has for his wife Jessica Biel, but lyrically it sure doesn’t sound that way – “So tonight, if I take it too far, that’s okay because you know … I hear the making up’s fun.” This is uhhhhhhh this is a song by a man currently in a Woody Allen film. I would like to revert you to the pic of Timberlake wearing a #TimesUp pin. And the chorus is just awful: “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / There’s the faucet,” he sings. Please take your sexy back. Here’s a fun fact to leave you with: he named this filthy song after his infant son.
Major authenticity issues and gross lyrics aside, this album does have some enjoyable tracks. Country sensation Chris Stapleton helps actually ground “Say Something” in the vague indie-country-folk world Timberlake thinks he’s invading. Other tracks like “Supplies” and “Breeze Off the Pond” are pleasantly enjoyable songs, the former mashing flamenco-inspired guitar with trap beats, one of the album’s most interesting ideas. The latter is the best example of the acoustic-driven vocal songs that dominate the album’s back half. Even some early tracks like the Pharrell-co-authored “Midnight Summer Jam,” are delightful if not empty tracks. Even the pre-release ridicule of “Flannel” is a little deflated, as the track is frustratingly enjoyable.
Still, there’s far too many faults on this album. Ugly missteps run hand-in-hand through the city, and any escapes into the woods are mere digressions. What is essentially the opening line on this album is “haters gonna say it’s fake.” When’s the last time you heard Justin Vernon say that? Merle Haggard? Just being from an area does not make you an automatic herald of the culture. I’m from Boston but I’m not gonna jump into a perfect street-punk career at 27. I mean, there’s a damn reggae song on this album. So while there are some surprisingly pleasant moments, and Timberlake may remain an annoyingly pleasant celebrity figure, I have to end this with a question: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to care, should you bother listening for it?
-By Andrew McNally