Justin Timberlake Relies on Past Sex and Love Sounds on the Middling ‘Everything I Thought It Was’: Album Review

Justin Timberlake’s sixth album, “Everything I Thought It Was,” arrives in a cultural landscape far different than his previous ones. For the better part of his solo career, he has consistently defied gravity as both an album and singles artist. At his best, he managed to craft complete artistic visions so powerfully focused that the singles from them felt like events of their own: “Rock Your Body” and “Cry Me a River” validated the duality of 2002’s “Justified,” featuring split production from Timbaland and the Neptunes; “SexyBack” and “My Love” glistened with the electronic flourishes that fused the sprawling “FutureSex/LoveSounds”; “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors” matched the grandiosity of “The 20/20 Experience” (at least, for the first of the two-part project).

Something shifted with 2018’s “Man of the Woods” (to put it mildly), a project presented as a callback to Americana and folk, or even country, all wrapped up in a flannel button-down. But with the exception of a handful of songs co-penned with Chris Stapleton and a few twangs thrown in for good measure, “Woods” doubled down on what Timberlake has continuously embraced: R&B in lockstep with pop. The promotional churn of “Woods” and its singles didn’t align with what its overall theme promised, and it felt like a misstep for Timberlake and his track record for assembling albums as a fully realized statement.

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Perhaps it’s because he’s largely operated in pop music before social media democratized the perception and standing of any one celebrity. Timberlake has nimbly controlled his narrative since he split off from NSYNC, so it felt like the beginning of a reappraisal when the internet sunk its teeth into “Woods.” The past few years haven’t helped. At present, Timberlake is coming off of a public reckoning for past faults, namely how he treated former girlfriend Britney Spears (who kicked dust back up by revisiting their relationship in last year’s bombshell memoir “The Woman in Me”), and for letting Janet Jackson take a brutal career blow after their Super Bowl performance while he walked away unscathed. He apologized in a post on Instagram in 2021, but repairing the cracks in the foundation of a career built over decades can’t be done with the click of a button.

Timberlake doesn’t reconcile with remorse across the suitable yet uneven “Everything I Thought It Was”; rather, he quickly gestures towards it on opener “Memphis” and moves on: “I pray for peace within myself / And no more regrets with it / ‘Cause when I looked at my soul in the Mississippi / It reflected it.” The soul-searching starts and ends there, on an outlier of a song more concerned with the consequences of fame than the cause of those consequences. Instead, he simply does what he does best. “Everything” is a sprawling, exhaustive musical hodgepodge that feels like a callback to his earlier work—a return to the “fun Justin,” as his longtime collaborator Timbaland said last year—reflecting a time where pop music best functioned as escapism from the world around you. For Timberlake, that means mainly focusing on what keeps him centered: the deep love he has for his wife Jessica Biel (or, as she’s credited for her narration on “Woods,” Jessica Timberlake). Throughout the course of the album, he makes that point again, and again. And again. It’s a wonder he was able to fit his oversized love into 18 tracks.

The lead single “Selfish,” a soft, dressed-down ballad about wanting someone all to yourself, sums up the theme of “Everything,” and much like his first few albums aligns with the broader vision at play. Timberlake excels when he puts on the show fans expect. His forays into funk-pop stand tall and bold: “Fuckin’ Up the Disco” and “No Angels” slot neatly into the pantheon of Timberlake dancefloor paeans; “My Favorite Drug” leans on the age-old trope of love-as-drug, yet it feels fresh and vibrant thanks to a snapping, Euro-inflected Timberlake co-production with pop artisans Louis Bell and Cirkut. Timberlake’s versatile voice is as strong as ever on “Everything,” and his ability to interlace harmonies and layer them in at just the right time adds richness to songs like the emotive “Love Is War” and bass-popped “Play.”

Timbaland returns to the boards on five of the album’s tracks, and you can sense them trying to replicate the magic of “FutureSex” right down to the beat shift halfway through the seven-minute “Technicolor.” But it all often feels like a recall of past successes without the suave sexiness Timberlake once exuded. Presently, he is a 43-year-old father of two; his days of seductively posing shirtless on the cover of Rolling Stone are over. And it’s a blemish on the album, particularly when it comes to the lyrics, which can feel overwrought — and that’s being charitable. “Soon as all your clothes hit the floor, pray this hotel room is insured / How many times, I stopped keeping score, I’m not sure / But if I had to guess, infinity sex,” he sings on, yes, “Infinity Sex.” “Call in sick, we gon’ be up all night / On my way to clock in, get you right,” on “What Lovers Do.” The pained metaphors soldier on.

Timberlake has always been sort of cheesy, something that’s been on full display in his comedic skits on “Saturday Night Live,” and he’s managed to largely keep that out of his music. Yet on “Everything,” it seeps into his creative process. To say that Timberlake has completed his transition into a family man is an understatement, and the album’s weaker moments pay its toll. But he can still bank on the fact that he hasn’t lost his charm, in part due to his sincerity. “Paradise,” his second NSYNC reunion song following last September’s “Better Place,” has all the workings of a schlocky ballad you’d find in the closing credits of a rom-com. Yet despite that, it works — chalk it up to the nostalgia of hearing the quintet harmonizing once again, or the fact that you know he means it when he sings, “I don’t mind waiting, I’ve been waiting forever / Right here for this moment between you and I / Everything is happening and it’s just what I imagined.”

Faulting him for framing an album about marital contentedness verging on complacency doesn’t feel fair; after all, write what you know. But on “Everything,” it can grow tiresome. Timberlake is at a precarious point in a career that’s earned him the distinction of being crowned the Prince of Pop. He’s fallen out of favor with some of his once-adoring fan base; his albums don’t arrive as the events they once were. “Everything” could have been a smart reinvention, an album that reframes the conventions of what works in modern pop. But it doesn’t, in the way that “FutureSex” or “The 20/20 Experience” did; maybe that’s just a byproduct of getting older, operating as an elder statesman in a genre where youth is currency, or simply lightning rarely striking twice. For Timberlake, “Everything” feels like a stopgap on the road to Adult Contemporary — he’s not at greatest-hits-tour status just yet, but it may not be far off.

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