Neil Young was only 25 years old when he sang the world-weary “…and I’m getting old” line in the chorus of his 1972 country-rock classic “Heart of Gold.” “Gold” and the rest of the downcast tunes that populate Young’s Harvest album are full of pangs of old-timey masculinity, musings on securing a plot of land and raising a family on it like the cowboys and prairie folk did. Young retreated to the woods at 24, after spotting an idyllic swatch of Northern California land out of the window of an airplane, and plotted his methodical and ultimately successful escape from pop scrutiny, but the speed at which he got spooked by celebrity and set about trying to disappear remains chilling.
Justin Timberlake is treating the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana, like his own Broken Arrow Ranch. Timberlake and wife Jessica Biel own residences in Manhattan and Hollywood, but Big Sky, also home to Bill Gates, is where the two have reportedly decided to raise their 2-year-old son Silas, whose name is adapted from the Latin “Silvanus,” which means “of the forest.” Man of the Woods, Timberlake’s first studio album since 2013’s two-part 20/20 Experience, threw fans for a loop with its first teaser trailer because the title and rustic scenery seemed to point to Timberlake finally following through on a year and a half of subtle inferences that he was going to make a country album. It’s odd that no one jumped to the simpler conclusion — that he’d just made a regular old Justin Timberlake album about the sights and sounds around the place he now calls home — and stranger still that he allowed speculation to simmer until two nights ago, when he quipped in an Instagram video that the album’s actually named after the baby.
It takes a special kind of celebrity to draw hot preemptive fire online for releasing a country album he never even made. Timberlake is the last of a Hollywood breed that has since been discontinued. They were dapper, they were talented, and they shut the hell up. Weighing in on matters of political and social import could split audiences. Silence was strategic. All of Justin Timberlake’s most egregious public gaffes involve not speaking up: leaving Janet Jackson twisting in the wind after he accidentally ripped a piece of her brassiere off at the Super Bowl halftime show, working with Woody Allen as the drums of long-simmering outrage are starting to send Hollywood’s most infamous gropers and abusers into early retirement. The media poise that once protected the singer from ill will has become his primary source of it. The heavy-handed marketing for Man of the Woods offered a clean hit; naturally everyone took it.
Man of the Woods isn’t the recession into white outdoorsmanship that bloggers vilified any more than Timberlake’s Tennessee Kids is a band full of people actually from Tennessee. (It is an affront to black suburban families, caballeros and rancheros, Alaskan Native-Americans, and so many other groups to classify the American outdoors as a playground for white men. People of color don’t all live in cities.) It is an album about slipping off the grid to do cute, corny shit with your wife and kids. The song about partying (“Midnight Summer Jam”) fixates on the idea that the families out living it up don’t normally get out much. (“Hey, all of the locals are happy to get out and meet a new face.”) The pickup lines in “Supplies” are about how great of a team player JT would be in a zombie apocalypse. The pop star’s first album wholly conceived as a married man carries the happy-in-love, grown-and-sexy vibes of The 20/20 Experience a step further; nothing impresses him now but the comforts of home and family.
Woods also ditches the long-form dance tracks 20/20 reveled in and loses a measure of its predecessor’s horny weirdness. There’s no mile-high trysts in cars that transform into galactic aircraft here, no vampire sex, no mutant mid-song a cappella breakdowns. Woods reunites Timberlake with the Neptunes, architects of lean Justified jams like “Señorita” and “Like I Love You.” “Young Man,” “Breeze Off the Pond,” and “Midnight Summer Jam” match the highs of Timberlake and the Neptunes at their early-aughts peak largely by leaving the old formula alone. (You can tell everyone is proud of “Midnight Summer Jam” because they let the beat ride out for a whole minute after the song’s done.) But the meat of Man of the Woods is a strange post-genre hash of R&B, psych, folk-rock, and country accents that fails about as often as it succeeds.
The smart stuff here feels carefully pieced together from seemingly incongruous pieces of music history. “Livin’ Off the Land” blows in on a bed of synthetic flutes (and audio from the History Channel’s Mountain Men) and builds to a chorus that bounces jazz bass off EDM synths. “Supplies,” for its hokey lyrical conceit, affixes trap drums to 12-string guitars, like a Migos session getting crashed by the Byrds. “The Hard Stuff” bests 20/20’s “Drink You Away” for Timberlake’s best pairing of country songwriting and hip-hop drums. “Montana” calls back to heavily synthesized disco cuts like Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and the keyboard odyssey at the end of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” The soaring guitar in “Higher Higher” carries a whiff of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue.”
Man of the Woods is packed with quirky ideas, but not all of them work. The title track builds a hook out of tuned drums that manage to feel lackluster as both melody and percussion. The practice torpedoes a few songs; it stiffens the soulful groove of the Alicia Keys duet “Morning Light” and renders the stately glee-club harmonies of “Flannel” impossibly cheesy. Woods’s shortcomings are baffling because no one here is out of their depth. With last month’s N.E.R.D album No One Ever Really Dies, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo tossed ska, trap, chiptune, and more into a blender and came out with a rainbow helado’s worth of fascinating textures. Pharrell produced an entire Little Big Town album in 2016 that has a keener sense of adventure. Timbaland proved he could hang with everyone; he made graceful soul for Sam Smith, fused country and bluegrass with Brad Paisley, and dabbled in reggaeton alongside Wisin and Bad Bunny. The one party Man of the Woods’s failures share in common is Timberlake.
Justin Timberlake seems to be content, but his ability to tap into that feeling for vital songwriting is tarnished. The singer’s best songs are about the rush of attraction. “Like I Love You,” “Love Stoned/I Think She Knows,” and even more recent material like “Pusher Love Girl,” “Mirrors,” and “That Girl” leaned fearlessly into the grinning joy of new love. At its worst, Man of the Woods is like eavesdropping on conversations between the kinds of couples who go out in matching outfits. “Wave” makes vacationing seem mawkish: “Some us time would be magic / This is fantastic / And we could get some practice / And miles on our passes for love.” “Man of the Woods” actually admits the singer’s not great at flipping these experiences into lyrics: “How do I ever explain what I’ve got with you? / I try to find the words but they hide and that’s the truth.”
Settling down shouldn’t spell doom for a singer-songwriter. Beyoncé has made some of the best music of her career (and our time) as a wife and mother. Neil Young got to the rolling hills of Broken Arrow and set about writing On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, which are home to some of the darkest, most rewarding music of his career. Timberlake’s problem is that he’s writing what he knows, and apparently what he knows now is Rocky Mountain whitewater rafting and quickies while the baby’s asleep. The root trouble of Man of the Woods is that JT’s conflict has been resolved. (There’s a reason the singer’s biggest hit of the decade plays right before the end credits in a children’s movie.) No amount of snazzy Chris Stapleton co-writes and Neptunes and Timbaland beats can disguise the fact that this is a body of songs about gleeful adulting on a Montana resort. On his last album, Justin Timberlake dared to stop chasing the trappings of youthfulness, but just four years later, he sounds bored and washed before his time.