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Through one listen of Justin Timberlake’s new album Everything I Thought It Was, it’s clear that the Man Of The Woods still exists. Six years have passed since Timberlake released his fourth album, an underwhelming project compared to his third album The 20/20 Experience, which arrived five years prior. The 20/20 Experience is sleek, braggadocious, and probably the flyest body of work in Timberlake’s discography. There, Timberlake lives under the bright lights of the nightlife where the fun continues as long as the disco ball spins.

Man Of The Woods, on the other hand, replaced a penthouse view of city skyscrapers with a porch view of country meadows. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but Timerblake failed to make that view enticing on Man Of The Woods. Everything I Thought It Was does a much better job. Timberlake isn’t back under the bright lights in a big city. Instead, he’s still in the fields and valleys, set on proving that some level of excitement exists on the new horizons.

Just as he did with Man Of The Woods, Timberlake emphasizes authenticity and simplicity in Everything I Thought It Was. He called it “incredibly honest” and his “most straightforward” record to date while noting that it’s also “a lot of f*cking fun.” It’s almost as if to say that the two lattermost albums in his career live in a world separate from his first three, and for what it’s worth, he’s mostly right. The “fun” on his first three albums is risque, suggestive, and youthful with goals to bring sexy back and pursue a woman and her strawberry bubblegum. Not so much this time around. Timberlake’s current “fun” is safer and a few steps back from boundaries.

On “Play” he tries to slyly pull a woman away from her daily obligations for a day of fun and sippin’ rosé. “My Favorite Drug” whisks a lover to the dancefloor for an intoxicating and riveting swing of the hips that takes their chemistry to steamy heights — a high that only drug use could bring. Still, a trip to the past is never out of reach for Justin. “Infinity Sex” is tongue-in-cheek in the same way that “SexyBack” is. On both, the message is pretty clear, and nearly 20 years apart, Timberlake can still crack a smirk for a fun moment that he gets a kick out of creating.

Though Timberlake is no longer a city dweller nowadays, there are plenty of callbacks on Everything I Thought It Was to those times that prove you can take the man of the city, but you can’t take the city out on the man. “My Favorite Drug” is a fun, drug-themed extravaganza just like “LoveStoned” from FutureSex/LoveSounds. “No Angels,” a funky tune where Timberlake simultaneously plays the devil on the shoulder and the awaiting prince for a woman who considers shedding a layer in the name of good fun, ends with an incredibly satisfying beat breakdown. Though Timbaland isn’t listed as a producer on the song, it’s great to hear the same lip-popping and tongue-clicking beatboxing that was so foundational in Timberlake’s discography (see: “Cry Me A River,” “My Love,” and “Tunnel Vision”).

Then there’s “Love & War,” a semi-distant cousin of “Mirror.” The former won’t be as popular as the latter, nor is it as good, but both are linked to Timberlake’s burning passion for love and his plea for it to exist at all times. The love songs on Everything I Thought It Was come from the same world as “Mirrors” but are constructed without the desire to put on a worldstopping show in the name of romance. “Mirrors” roared with fiery love as did Timberlake’s vocals on its unforgettable hook and a searing guitar that electrified the feelings at hand.

On Everything I Thought It Was, Timberlake’s love songs feel like peeking through a cracked bedroom door. “What Lovers Do” watches the clothes fly off two passionate lovers before they run up to the bedroom while “Technicolor” lives with them under the covers with the sun shining on them. “Selfish” showcases the overly smitten feelings and offloads the accompanying thoughts that exist in perfectly crafted relationships. In all these cases, it’s clear that romance is alive, Timberlake just pulls us a bit closer and away from the noise to see it.

At the end of “Memphis,” the track that opens Everything I Thought It Was (even though “F*ckin Up The Disco” would’ve served as a better intro), producer Danja brings the album’s title to life with a brief chant of sorts. “I’m everything you thought I was / I’m everything I thought I was / It was everything I thought it was,” he says. Timberlake, the man who stares at green pastures in the distance, as depicted in the artwork for Everything I Thought It Was, seemingly knew he’d arrive at this point. The moment when the show isn’t the grand spectacle that it used to be.

Things have certainly changed for Timberlake — it’d be wrong to say that isn’t the case — but it doesn’t mean that he has. Change happens for a reason and everything is what it’s supposed to be. Justin Timberlake’s Everything I Thought It Was proves that a show can be put on no matter where you are, so long as you know how to work the stage and new environment to your advantage. The differences will be felt, but in the end, the experience will still be a good one.

Everything I Thought It Was is out now via RCA Records. Find out more information here.

Posted in: Pop