For as many detours as Man of the Woods takes, it's rarely stretching outside of Timberlake's comfort zone. He's not chasing the sounds of Atlanta with Metro Boomin, re-upping on mall-pop with his "Can't Stop the Feeling" collaborator Max Martin, or channeling Taylor Swift by calling up Jack Antonoff. Instead, Timberlake is essentially doing the exact thing many fans and critics claim they wish legacy artists would do: He's staying in his lane. Almost every track on this record, with the exception of the unremarkable "Morning Light" and "The Hard Stuff," was produced by either The Neptunes or Timbaland, the architects of his signature Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds aesthetic. As a throwback record, this should work.
The problem is that the cultural landscape around Timberlake has changed in ways that make these watery experiments sound especially tepid. Listening to this album is like scrolling through that cabin porn blog for an hour: It's the weaponization of "woodsy" as an aesthetic. Timberlake is clearly aiming for the sexual rhythms of dance music but it's often frictionless. He wants the soul of country but he's become allergic to writing about emotional pain. Similarly, his conception of the South or Montana or just "the woods" is overwhelmingly generic. He's untethered from geography: A man-bun without a country.
It's the musical equivalent of an idea explored by The Verge writer Kyle Chayka in an essay about "AirSpace," described as "the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset." Timberlake's faux-rustic vision of America is similar.
Throughout the marketing of Man of the Woods, Timberlake cast himself as a searcher, someone attempting to find deep meanings, but the actual content of these songs feel shallow. On one track, he literally sings, "Success is cool/Money is fine," which is likely true. Success and money do seem cool; no arguments there. The problem is thinking that such an obvious sentiment is worth sharing with an enormous global audience. At a certain point, it starts to feel like James Franco's drug dealer Alien saying "Look at my shiiiiiit" in Spring Breakers. By the end, you want to be like, "I'm good, man."