"I guess I got my swagger back," boasts Justin Timberlake on Filthy, the comeback single and the opening number on his fifth album Man of the Woods, and for a thrilling four minutes and 54 seconds, he's right; the swagger is strong in this one. Moving through what feels like a flashing tunnel of lights leading to a cyborg-hosted, Studio 54-style nightclub filled with hedonism, gadgets and excess, Filthy is a clash of spacial funk and futuristic thuds designed to get you riled up and, as the song suggests, to keep you going until six in the morning.
Alas, Filthy is a kiss goodbye to the Trousersnake we once knew. His wife Jessica Biel acts as the album's patronus through various spoken interludes, guiding us away from the JT of old to the family man of now. While past hits like Cry Me a River and SexyBack use juxtaposing sounds like Gregorian chants and industrial crunches to push pop paradigms, on Man of the Woods, the Tennessee man attempts to fuse watered down funk with the Farmers Journal. Not even the usually reliable producers Danja, The Neptunes and Timbaland could make this work.
In the album's promotional video, we see him wading around in a river as if he's being baptised, letting us know that he's humble, cleansed and reborn. "Saint or a sinner, the loser can be a winner with a plan, when you're livin' off the land," he philosophies on Livin' Off the Land, concluding that when you're in the woods, everyone is equal but there's a flaw to his theory. While Montana the song has a racing disco bassline with Pharrell Williams' name stamped all over it, the woods in Montana the state is where he and Biel would like to raise their son Silas - whose coos of "dada" appear on the doting Young Man - away from the flashing lights of their careers. As earthy as that sounds, the property they own there is within Yellowstone Club, a pricey, private residential community in the mountains. He may be claiming to be a Man of the Woods but he's definitely paying someone else to chop the logs, while he poses with an axe slung over his shoulder, wearing a flat cap and a flannel shirt. And speaking of Flannel…
"Right behind my left pocket, there is where you'll feel my soul. It has been there many winters, it will keep you warm," he sings on Flannel, a song that lives somewhere between an audition for Inside Llewyn Davis, Kellerman's Anthem from Dirty Dancing and a Charlie Landsborough special. Supplies, equipped with a video that promotes Kendall Jenner levels of political activism, is a sleazy and jarring song where he boasts about how he's a "generous lover". On the flirtatious Higher Higher and the soulful Morning Light, a duet with Alicia Keys, he drops the lumberjack act and we catch a glimpse of what this album could have been; cocky yet irresistible.
For most of his solo career, Timberlake has delivered the goods but for the third album in a row, following 2013's disappointing two-part endurance test The 20/20 Experience, he's loitering dangerously close to mediocre when he's anything but. On Midnight Summer Jam, which features an intrusive harmonica solo, he claims that we act like "the south ain't the sh*t", pretending as if Beyoncé's Lemonade never happened but where Beyoncé succeeded in dripping her 2016 album in genre-bending songs, Southern colloquialisms and political statements, Man of the Woods feels like Hannah Montana's guide to the South. As his caring patronus, maybe it's Biel's duty to get him back indoors. All that fresh air has gone to his head.