Justin Timberlake, “Man of the Woods” (RCA)
Don’t be fooled by the title or the latest images with Timberlake looking like he stepped out of a Timberland catalog. Even though there’s a song here called “Flannel,” JT hasn’t gone all Bon Iver.
To be sure, there are nods to Nashville here and there, especially on the title cut and whenever country maverick Chris Stapleton is involved as a songwriter, guitarist or singer. But “Man of the Woods” could easily have been titled “King of Funk Lite Volume 3.”
This 16-track collection isn’t as exciting as the ex-N’ Sync heartthrob’s first two solo albums, “Justified” and “Future Sex/Love Sounds,” and, frankly, it’s about as unspectacular as 2013’s two-volume “20/20 Experience.”
Working mostly with producers Timbaland and the Neptunes, JT shows a love for old-school soul. Too often the record comes across like Bruno Mars without the musical dynamics or contemporary words. “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Wave” are Mars-meets-Stevie Wonder looking for a more sophisticated lyricist. “Breeze Off the Pond” is anonymous breezy ’90s soul, and “Montana” owes more to Earth, Wind & Fire than to Big Sky.
There are tips of the fedora to Prince, long an influence on Timberlake. The greasy funk of “Filthy,” JT’s current single, won’t bring sexyback but it will fill the dance floor. “Sauce” is odd and edgy with a typical old-school Prince couplet: “I love your pink/You like my purple.”
Maybe the sound the Memphis native was looking for was Southern soul, which is best exemplified on “Morning Light,” a sweet love song on which his voice is in full glory. Too often here JT’s voice is almost anonymous.
If he’s looking to break new ground, he comes closest on “Livin’ Off the Land,” a modern rhythmic workout with small-town country sensibility in the lyrics. It could have come from John Mayer’s “Paradise Valley.”
“Man of the Woods” may be where Timberlake, 37, married with a son, is at. The onetime boy band star grew up on his earlier albums. Now the woods man, all wrapped up in a comfy flannel blanket, is just too easy-listening.