I'm not here to defend Man of the Woods, but it’s probably gonna come off that way so let’s just get into it. Justin Timberlake’s fifth studio album is definitely his least memorable and possibly his most experimental, blending a lot more slightly Southern, sorta-country sounds into his usual pop-soul smoothie.
Although there likely won’t be as many hits here—and despite an inane 3.8 score from Pitchfork—this record is far from a failure, and that’s because its bright spots will accomplish the singular goal of all of Timberlake’s music: making non-dancing people get up and dance without remorse or self-consciousness. You’re gonna shake it, as it were, when you see him at T-Mobile Arena. This is why Justin Timberlake exists.
How long has he been the best at this? Probably since 2001, when his first collaboration with The Neptunes, NSYNC’s “Girlfriend,” arrived. Timberlake and Pharrell Williams make magic in the studio, yet Man of the Woods marks their first collaboration on a Timberlake album since the first one, 2002’s Justified. Williams and Chad Hugo received writing and producing credits on nine of 16 tracks on Man of the Woods, including the best songs on the album and, not surprisingly, the majority of new material Timberlake is performing on his current tour.
“Filthy,” produced by Timbaland and Danja, is the lead single and the show-starter, and while it packs a decent robo-funk punch, it feels left over from 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. “Midnight Summer Jam” is much less cold and far more fun, a throwback soul party a la Earth, Wind and Fire, while “Montana” creates a new dance-pop category—songs about sexy ski cabin vacations.
Despite appearances by Chris Stapleton and Alicia Keys and what is likely the first trap-survival anthem (“Supplies”), Man’s best friend is “Higher, Higher,” a classic Pharrell jam—at least since he started hanging with Nile Rodgers—that makes the most of JT’s voice and lyrical skills and should bring a slow-burning groove to the live show. It’s a midtempo gem with a hypnotic, extended refrain (“If it’s for you, it can’t be any old thing”) that might be the catchiest thing on the whole album, sort of a Bee Gees thing with a little more twang. And it’s totally danceable, even if you don’t. Which is, again, the whole point.
Justin Timberlake songs are always better live, because he’s an entertainer first and foremost, way ahead of his abilities as a singer, songwriter, dancer and actor. His last show in Vegas delivered very obvious evidence, as the January 2015 concert at MGM Grand Garden Arena that served as the final stop of the 20/20 Experience World Tour was turned into the Netflix concert film Justin Timberlake & The Tennessee Kids. If you’re less excited about this weekend because you don’t like Man of the Woods, go anyway and allow yourself to be reminded why this guy is the biggest pop star of his generation.
And if the JT Vegas residency rumors have died down, let’s fire them back up again. He’s one of very few current artists who could routinely sell out the 5,200-capacity Park Theater the way Bruno Mars does. Timberlake is the only thing in those MGM Resorts “Welcome to the Show” commercials without a permanent place on the Las Vegas Strip … for now.
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE April 14-15, 7:30 p.m., $60-$280. T-Mobile Arena, 702-692-1600.