Men of the Woods
Timberlake Fakes It, Mallonee Lives It

Ever been taken in by marketing?

It’s not the most pleasant of feelings. I tend to avoid hype like the plague, so when it works on me, it doesn’t thrill me. I tend to do the opposite of what hype wants me to. I didn’t read the Harry Potter books for years, just because everyone else was raving about them. (That turned out to be a mistake, since everyone else was right.) I haven’t watched a single episode of This Is Us, partially because it looks awful, and partially because of the constant bombardment of that show on my eyeholes and earholes.

Anyway, Justin Timberlake’s new album is called Man of the Woods, and I have to admit, the marketing worked on me. I’ve always kind of liked Timberlake, but wished he would break out of his apparently fervent desire to be Michael Jackson. Calling an album Man of the Woods felt like a good first step. The accompanying photos were right out of an L.L. Bean catalog, too, with Timberlake dressed in flannel and outdoor gear, surveying the wilderness thoughtfully. Of course, it’s all image manipulation, but I thought perhaps this would signal the sonic shift I’ve been looking for, and open Timberlake up to more honest and interesting music.

Yeah, I’m a sucker. By now you’ve probably all heard the wretched singles “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and they unfortunately set the tone for the first half of this album. Timberlake is still working with Timbaland and the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), and what changes there are to his basic sound are for the worse. The first three songs, including “Filthy,” are the same kind of Michael Jackson pop that he’s given us for years, with a surfeit of inspiration. “This ain’t the clean version,” he croons on “Filthy,” giving us yet another entry into the “songs that describe themselves” genre.

The title track is so much worse, though, bouncing along on a kinda goofy groove, Timberlake proclaiming himself a man of the woods while singing over programmed drums and synthesizers. It just doesn’t work. And “Wave” is even worse, the Neptunes laying down a canned Caribbean strum while Timberlake tries very hard to sound natural over it. On the bright side, this is a definite curve ball for him, but it’s pretty poor stuff. And then comes “Supplies,” which is just plain bad.

So the first half is hard to get through, but on the second half, Timberlake’s idea of mixing in more acoustic folk with his usual electronic groove begins to bear fruit. I can’t really fault “Morning Light,” a soulful duet with Alicia Keys, but it is with “Say Something,” Timberlake’s collaboration with country-rocker Chris Stapleton, that the shift happens. “Say Something” isn’t a great song, but it does shift Timberlake into new territory, and it also seems to be about not centering cultural conversations on oneself, which starts to address the issues of appropriation that have dogged his career.

From here, Man of the Woods turns into more of a folk record, and believe it or not, Timberlake sounds much more comfortable singing these songs than something like “Filthy” or “Sauce.” “Flannel” is particularly silly, but it’s also sweet, and while I’m sure Timberlake has never in his life lived off the land, “Livin’ Off the Land” does mix up the guitars and dance grooves nicely. “The Hard Stuff” might be my favorite thing here, despite its John Mayer-ness, and closer “Young Man” is the personal connection I spent the whole record looking for. It’s a positive, upbeat letter to his son, and it’s catchy and cute.

Is catchy and cute enough? I’m not sure. I ended up liking the second half of Man of the Woods more than I expected to, but it’s certainly not the stripped-down affair the marketing blitz might make you think it is. Justin Timberlake is no more a man of the woods than I am, and the record only gently tweaks his musical direction, rather than rewriting it. On that score, it’s a disappointment.

If you’d like to hear a real man of the woods, may I suggest Bill Mallonee. There’s no image manipulation with him. When you see photos of Mallonee with his long beard, taken out in the wild, you know this is how he really lives. Mallonee has been plying his trade for nearly 30 years, first with the Vigilantes of Love, and then solo. He has something like 40 solo records, and he’s been cranking them out at a rate of at least one a year for a long time. Lately they’ve been true solo records – just Bill in his country house, overdubbing drums and bass and guitars and then singing in his world-weary, wise voice. His records are dispatches from his soul, and they feel like them.

His latest is called Forest Full of Wolves, and like much of his recent material, it’s somewhat dark and bleak. Mallonee believes in facing darkness full on, and wringing whatever hope he can out of it. I sometimes criticize Mallonee for writing the same kind of great song over and over, and he makes no strides in another direction on Forest. It’s just another ten really good Bill Mallonee tunes, poems set to jangly American rock and roll.

That said, there’s nothing here I don’t like. I’m a particular fan of “In the New Dark Age,” which is subtitled “The Best Thing You Can Do is Fall in Love.” It’s kind of the perfect Mallonee song, taking an unflinching look at broken lives and bringing them courage. “Changing of the Guard” is a surprisingly political number: “Now the devil pays for your allegiance, hiding behind stars and stripes, he speaks his piece through the lips of the elite and appears as an angel of light…”

There are more than a few excellent turns of phrase on this record, some of them exactly what a poet like him should be speaking into the world right now. “Before the Darkness Settles In” is another one that doesn’t flinch: “Now the milk of human kindness is curdled to the bone, and the autumn light is paler than I’ve ever known, pull on your heavy coat before the howling wind, before the darkness settles in…” “I Know, I Know” is about lies, and twists the knife with this verse: “Now I know a good joke, and I’ll share it with thee, what’s a hundred politicians at the bottom of the sea?”

But of all of his hymns of hard-fought hope, it’s “Trimmed and Burning” that most does it for me this time. The final verse: “I hate to end on a sober note, but there are spirits who won’t survive, in a world of meanness and cruelty, they won’t get out alive, so hand the world an olive branch, and hand yourself one too…”

Bill Mallonee has been as honest a songwriter as one could hope for (as well as a heck of a guitar player) for decades now, and each new record just solidifies that legacy. I’m happy he’s still at it. I’m happy I get to pay for a new set of songs every year (at least), and happy that this music still feeds him, both physically and spiritually. Forest Full of Wolves is another in a long line of really good Mallonee records, and if you want to start somewhere, this is as good a place to begin as any.

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