Justin Timberlake’s enthusiastic portrayal of an East Village folkie in the 2013 Coen brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis was confirmation that there was more to the pop star than McDonalds-boosting funk-pop and Janet Jackson-attendant Superbowl controversies.
But such hidden depths will have already been apparent to those who had spent time with 2006’s Future Sex / Love Sounds, surely the only Billboard topping album equally indebted to the Neptunes’ chrome-plated r’n’b and late 1990s Sonic Youth (if you think that’s hyperbole, check out the mid-song tempo switch of ‘What Goes Around… Comes Around’).
Timberlake continues to defy convention on his fourth album, which has the stated ambition of unifying his chart persona with the roots music he loved growing up in Tennessee. The idea isn’t as barking as it might seem, as artists such Bon Iver and even Ireland’s James Vincent McMorrow have joined the dots between Americana and laptop-derived funk.
The difference is that Timberlake’s image is so well established that it’s hard not to giggle at the LP cover shot of the singer rocking a flannel shirt (he goes on to pay tribute to that very item of clothing on the unambiguous ‘Flannel’). He’ll probably wear something similar for his Super Bowl appearance on Sunday.
Still, when it’s good, Man of the Woods is superlative – single ‘Filthy’ is Michael Jackson kidnapped by Daft Punk; ‘Midnight Summer Jam’ and ‘Higher Higher’ are a supremely confident groovers. The title track’s stab at Bon Iver-esque broken-down r’n b, meanwhile, doesn’t miss by as wide a margin as you might have expected.
Less successful are overtly “country” numbers such as Alicia Keys-duet ‘Morning Light’ and Nashville-nudging ‘The Hard Stuff’. Yet even here, he occasionally emerges from the scrub with reputation undamaged, as on ‘Say Something’, a heartfelt get together with rustic crooner Chris Stapleton.