When Justin Timberlake suggests he’s going back to his roots — as he has in regards to his new album, “Man of the Woods” — what should we take that to mean?
Sure, the pop superstar was born in Memphis, where he says he learned to sing by soaking up Southern music by Johnny Cash and Al Green.
But Timberlake spent a goodly stretch of his youth as a cast member on “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which means that show business was at least as crucial to his foundation as any fishing trips he may have taken with his beloved grandpappy.
And what are the hallmarks of a career in show business, particularly for a young performer? Flexibility and adaptability — skills Timberlake later put to use in ‘N Sync as that typically mutable boy band moved with assurance from sleek Europop to glistening white soul to squirming electronic funk.
It’s that background that truly shaped the 37-year-old entertainer, who is set this weekend to play the Super Bowl halftime show for the third time. And it’s that song-and-dance man who we hear most clearly on “Man of the Woods,” Timberlake’s expertly appointed but emotionally inert homage to the place that he says made him.
For Timberlake, the American South may be home. But more than that it’s a collection of sounds and gestures — another piece of “sonic real estate,” as he put it in a recent interview with Apple’s Zane Lowe, just waiting to be colonized.
As always, his development of the place is an impressive, if shallow, aesthetic achievement. (Think of Timberlake as the Rick Caruso of big-ticket pop.)
Working primarily with his old friends Timbaland and the Neptunes, he blends gleaming synths with lush country vocal harmonies and layers twangy guitars over percolating electronic beats in tunes like “Flannel” and “Livin’ Off the Land.”
Chris Stapleton stops by for a duet on “Say Something,” extending the bromance that began when Timberlake joined the bearded country star on the CMA Awards stage in 2015; Stapleton co-wrote two additional songs on “Man of the Woods,” including “Morning Light,” a shuffling soul cut featuring Alicia Keys.
Raphael Saadiq, the great R&B veteran, is also in the mix, playing deeply funky bass in “Wave” — one more sign that Timberlake will spare no expense to get the stage dressing right.
None of this, apart from the trap-inspired “Supplies,” has much to do with the current Top 40. That comes as something of a surprise given the obvious thirst for a hit the singer demonstrated less than two years ago when he reteamed with Max Martin, his former ‘N Sync producer, for the precision-crafted “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (At that time Timberlake told me he’d been working on more music with Martin and Martin’s producing partner, Shellback, neither of whom are credited on “Man of the Woods.”)
But that’s OK. Sometimes an artist needs to venture from the established path to find his way to somewhere more personal or idiosyncratic.
Only that’s not what happens here.
As clever as the production can be, “Man of the Woods” contains Timberlake’s least convincing singing; in song after song, there’s a glazed-over quality to his vocals that defeats the idea that he’s drawing from some raw-water reservoir of cherished down-home memories.
And his lyrics are even worse, with flimsy clichés about country life — “Breeze Off the Pond” rhymes that phrase with “trees on the lawn” — and no shortage of condescension to those well-meaning simpletons struggling out in the heartland.
“Sometimes it’s hard / The backed-up bills on the credit card,” he actually sings in “Livin’ Off the Land,” which opens, believe it or not, with a bit of sound from the History Channel’s “Mountain Men.”
In “Flannel,” the ratty shirt in question serves as a metaphor for the comfort that Timberlake and his wife, Jessica Biel (who delivers a spoken intro), provide each other.
But again Timberlake’s language is so faux-folksy — there’s mention of a “fancy record company man” — that all you hear is his remove from the world he says he’s trying to honor.
So why is Timberlake so much less successful in this mode than in the others he’s taken up?
Maybe he thought he didn’t need to work as hard as he has in the past, since this is familiar territory. Maybe he oversold the album’s concept in the unintentionally laughable video clip he used to announce “Man of the Woods,” which had him inhaling campfire smoke and striking messianic poses in a river.
Or maybe he’s conflicted about his real feelings on the South. This week, several news outlets reported that Timberlake had co-written the scuzzy “Sauce” with Toby Keith, the polarizing (and often misunderstood) country star known for playing President Trump’s inauguration concert last year.
Keith isn’t credited in the album’s liner notes, but his name does appear in an entry for the song on ASCAP’s website. Timberlake’s representatives didn’t respond within 24 hours to my request for clarification on the matter, which raises the possibility that, with Keith, Timberlake got more of a red-state assist than he bargained for.
That’s how this Southern misadventure comes across anyway: as a flashy Hollywood depiction full of local color but minus any feeling for the complexity of the place.