Long renowned for his agility, Justin Timberlake has had himself an uncommonly awkward album rollout in the past month. As with Taylor Swift during the fall of last year, the pop ecosystem in which Timberlake had thrived and built a name had evaporated in his absence, and the artist’s attempt to reclaim a central position through grandiose and expensive signaling ended up enhancing the sense that he was out of touch instead of bringing him up to speed. The smoothness and athleticism he specialized in could never truly go out of style, but superstar pop albums now tend toward concepts and ideological statements, things Timberlake has displayed neither inclination nor aptitude for during a career spanning two decades.
All the same, he’s not to be underestimated; though his newly released album Man of the Woods displays the tension between prevailing trends and natural talent, it’s hardly a bad album. If Man of the Woods is too clumsy to be truly stellar, it’s also too fun to resent. Perhaps no track sums up the album’s divided ambience so well as “Montana”: produced by the Neptunes, its bright, funky, physically irresistible gallop is an ideal prompt for Timberlake to do what he excels at, sing short verses in a high voice about getting up close and personal.
Yet, since the album is tied to an outdoorsman narrative, there’s much talk of compasses and stars and mountains and, yes, Montana. Maybe the ranchers, hunters, and white separatist militiamen of Big Sky Country will heed the call of the funk and get down with Pharrell and Chad Hugo, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for “Montana” to resonate anywhere outside of a club deep in the city. It’s an unexpected move, pasting rural imagery onto a quintessential urban contemporary beat, but it only makes the song better in theory; in practice it’s just confusing. And who ever came to Justin Timberlake for anything but hard-core dance practice? His forte is motion, not depth, and the sooner he doubles down on his strength instead of shackling it with stilted notions the easier it will be for him to stay relevant.