Words and talking


Between 2005-2016 I wrote more than 2,000 reviews for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye. Here's a good place to start.

Appalling ‘Man of the Woods’ is Justin Timberlake’s ‘The Happening’


Instantly embarrassing, the parade of horrendous impulses that make up Justin Timberlake’s new album “Man of the Woods” – complete with unintentionally hilarious cover art, suggesting the famous Tennessee native in the expensive suit who performs at the Super Bowl is just a torn-jeans country boy deep-down, taking a Hollywood break from a Brett Favre Wrangler commercial – confirms him as the new M. Night Shyamalan (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” “After Earth”).

In other words, an undeniably talented person is now a mediocre self-parody who has lost the ability to distinguish a good idea from a horrible one and shouldn’t be allowed to write for himself. (For the record, Shyamalan’s “The Visit” was OK and “Split” was good. He’s recovering.) On Timberlake’s new album, there’s almost no evidence of the charisma and swagger that made him even more successful as a solo artist than as a member of *NSYNC. Instead, JT dilutes the over-cooked but sometimes-thrilling ("Mirrors") self-indulgence of “The 20/20 Experience” into mostly shorter and almost always worse material with minimal hooks and maximum stupidity.

The heights of “Justified” or “FutureSex/LoveSounds” are a distant, distant memory, and the new stuff is the kind of garbage that requires a track-by-track rundown. So here goes:

1.       Wobbly funk that falls over before you even feel like dancing to it, “Filthy” isn’t even up to Bruno Mars standards, and I hate Bruno Mars. The mid-song band explosion is as pointless as the electronic stuttering that follows as JT constantly loses interest in his own work. He sings about haters and partying until six in the morning and “if you know what’s good,” repeatedly demonstrating how clearly he doesn’t.

2.       Frolicking on Shakespeare’s grave, “A Midnight Summer Jam” is JT’s comfort zone of acoustic guitar-driven dance-pop but disintegrates among too many musical flourishes (strings, clapping, harmonica) and atrocious lyrics (“I don’t like it! I love it! [grunt]”). “After midnight, please don’t stop the music,” he croons, with nothing else to say besides love is good, sex is good, night is good, music is good. “Act like the South ain’t the shit,” he declares, a feeble challenge with nothing to back it up.

3.       “Sauce” is sexy for six seconds until JT says “I love your pink; you love my purple.” Dude. Did you not learn from the idiocy of “Strawberry Bubblegum”? Stop talking about your and Jessica’s genitalia. It doesn’t go well for you.

4.       How oblivious do you have to be for the title track of your “Man of the Woods” album to still sound like it was made in an L.A. studio? A dreadful, tinny ballad that only reinforces JT’s shallow understanding of relationships and identity and calls for a complete rewrite of its paltry guitar lick and doo-wop background. Very unclear why he suggests being a man of the woods makes him more likely to brag about someone than someone who is not of the woods.

5.       “Stress is cruel, fame’s a lie, but you’re special on every level. Success is cool, money is fine, but you’re special, another level.” “You are that thunder lightning; I needed to get out the darkness.” And the song is called “Higher Higher.” Dear lord is this guy’s vocabulary limited.

6.       The third bland song in a row that doesn’t come close to anything danceable and barely even finds a genre at all. Pathetically trying to rhyme words like “fantastic” and “practice,” “Wave” is like an amateur ukulele cover of “Like I Love You,” slowed down and ruined entirely. “We getting better, aging like your favorite wine.” Jeez, make it stop.

7.       You’d think a song about post-apocalyptic survival would offer some urgency. Instead, JT gives “Supplies” a plodding narrative in which a zombie would almost certainly overpower him as he’s singing about being your generator and how he’s got supply-yi-yiiiiiiiiies. This is the anti-cool, the come-on as turn-off.

8.       Was the sleepy duet “Morning Light” something Jason Mraz cast aside as too corny? “I’m in love with youuuuuuuuuuuu,” JT asserts, still unable to offer any actual storytelling behind his broad declarations of feeling. (“All I want to do is hold you tight just one more night.”) Speaking of awful lyricists, Alicia Keys appears here too, rhyming “bed” and “head.” These two deserve each other.

9.       “Say Something,” JT declares on this generic anthem with guest Chris Stapleton, by which clearly he doesn’t mean to say something about Woody Allen. “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all … but I can’t help myself.” So a lose-lose situation, basically.

10.   A minute-long, piano-driven interlude called “Hers” in which a woman talks about how special she feels wearing his shirt. Really.

11.   Just because a song is dubbed “Flannel” does not mean it evokes the mountains! “Right behind my left pocket that is where you’ll feel my soul,” JT actually sings. This isn’t country or folk (and anything dance-related flew out the window a long time ago), just seemingly some sleepy, on-set improv from the excellent “Inside Llewyn Davis” that never should have been recorded. Also, the last minute is a woman doing moody voiceover like “Do you see it? It’s in your blood.” I think this album might be a prank.

12.   JT is so far gone that he actually calls a slinky lounge track “Montana.” “Could it get any better? You and I together?” I feel like we’ve covered this before, man. Say something else. And incorporating the word “compass” is not the answer.

13.   Another dull acoustic guitar fart, “Breeze Off the Pond” sounds like the title of a dusty book you see in a discount store where the cover is just a guy sitting on a dock, looking off in the distance. “The grass is greenest when you’re here with me,” JT sings, ‘cause that’s all he’s got.

14.   Opening with what sounds like dudes chatting over a pan flute, “Livin’ off the Land” offers yet another dinky guitar lick as JT sings, “I’m just one man doing the best I can. Saint or a sinner, a loser can be a winner with a plan when you’re livin’ off the land.” What exactly is he advocating for? Existing off the grid for a while? Killing animals to survive? How is that inherently easier than the alternative? It’s unclear, but “I’ll be damned; sometimes it’s hard, the backed up bills on the credit cards,” ain’t gonna get people to sell their belongings and head to the forest.

15.   From the backhanded compliments department, I guess “The Hard Stuff” is the album’s "best" song. “Anybody can be in love on a sunny day/anybody can turn and run when it starts to rain.” OK, so that’s lame, cliché, weather-related imagery, but on this track JT actually dials into the dimensions of a relationship beyond the surface, and equally calm and swelling music suits the material. Not terrible!

16.   Speaking of cliché, is it really necessary to turn “If you want to make god smile, make plans” into a lyric? It is not. “Young Man,” JT’s album-closing attempt to address his son, maintains his trademark generalities like “You’ve got to be ready, you don’t understand.” Wait, what does he mean by, “If you want a woman that’s good, gotta play the system”? Whatever it is, it’s bad.