Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods
After some time to truly digest JT's woefully awful fifth album, we take a closer look at Man of the Woods
'Haters gonna say it’s fake,' shrugs Justin Timberlake, on Man of the Woods’ opener Filthy. In the video for the single, these words flash on a screen as Timberlake lurks in the wings of a technology conference, dressed as Steve Jobs. On the stage a cyborg protégée is mimicking JT’s trademark nineties dance moves and simulating NSFW action on a troupe of scantily clad dancers. The conference delegates are at first scandalised, but are finally so thrilled by Timberlake’s ‘innovation’ that they reward him with a standing ovation. On the contrary, the IRL response to his first album in five years has been icy at best.
Filthy’s squelching, rubberised bassline is sleazy enough to get you on the floor past 2am if you’ve had enough tequila, but Justin’s message feels confused. Pop’s long been a compromise between authenticity and contrived, theatrical drama. From Ziggy Stardust to Sasha Fierce, our most luminous popstars have a history of using fictional personas to expand their musical worlds. By announcing that this time it’s “real” – with an album roll-out fixated on Timberlake’s return to his Southern roots – is he suggesting that his career up ‘til now wasn’t really him?
A video trailer promoting Man of the Woods showed Timberlake trailing denims and plaid through acres of tall crops, narrated by his wife Jessica Biel doing her best Attenborough: “Like Wild West… but NOW.” He’s not the first star to recalibrate his pop persona, but as Ann-Derick Gaillot wrote for The Outline, after his hip-hop and R’n’B chart-toppers, “the ease with which Timberlake can pivot to and away from blackness certainly raises some questions.” Previous producers The Neptunes, Timbaland and Danja, all key to his previous hits, are back for this record, but combined with JT’s 'new year, new me' approach and a credit for renowned racist and country singer Toby Keith, it's no wonder the album sits so strangely.
On Man of the Woods, Timberlake’s new 'realness' is sold to us at fever pitch, over-produced and surprisingly chaste. Disco, funk, soul, spoken word, baby noises, lots of harmonica, a bit of EDM and some chillingly awkward innuendo make for an experience not dissimilar to turning up late to a buffet. JT’s smug family life is the single thread uniting this 16-track jumble of songs that swing between batshit and bland, and romance comes in two forms: soppy odes, or sloppy humblebrags about shagging.
Morning Light featuring Alicia Keys sounds, at a stretch, like a ballad written for Songs About Jane that didn’t make the cut. Wave is a repetitive ballad with a fingerpicked breakdown like an adlib on a comedy album, and interlude Hers features Biel describing how wearing JT's shirt feels like she’s wearing his skin.
Sauce has a ridiculous intro ('OOOOH, SAUCE!'), a meaty rock riff and pre-teen maturity when it comes to getting down to business. He sings, 'I love your pink / You like my purple' and he means… genitalia? The 'sauce' in question is either a sexy attitude, or a reference to bodily fluids ripped from an episode of My Dad Wrote a Porno. Supplies, another single with a baffling video that’s worth it purely for Timberlake re-birthing himself from desert sand, is a misguided attempt to elbow in to the “Future is Female” brand, while yelling that he’s a “generous lover” and boasting about his abilities to bring survival essentials, by which he undoubtedly means his penis. Shudder.
What’s more, these 'Woods' are a carefully cultivated kind of wilderness. The Timberlakes live in the Yellowstone Club, an eye-wateringly exclusive community in the Montana mountains, with Giselle Bündchen and Bill Gates for neighbours. On Breeze Off the Pond – the album’s psychedelic, joyful highlight – Timberlake describes a curated ruggedness of 'trees on the lawn' and a picturesque body of water. Less convincingly, on the guitar-twangin' Livin’ Off the Land he fetishizes a supposed ‘normal’ life, eking out a gross kind of glamour from the very real problems of rural proverty: 'I’ll be damned, sometimes it’s hard / The backed-up bills on the credit cards'.
As Dolly Parton once said, “I may look fake but I’m real where it counts.” On Man of the Woods, you'll find the opposite. Justin’s woodsy reincarnation is about as heart-on-sleeve as Pitbull’s Timber, and far less fun. In an age of fake news, Insta filters and fraudulent politics there’s nothing worse than being accused of fakery, but the problem with Timberlake’s elaborate, 16-track effort to persuade us of his realness isn’t that it’s fake – it’s that it’s objectively bad.
He’s received a biblical backlash, but maybe it’s not all his fault... it’s easy to mythologise the artists who made the bangers of our youth, and when the dry ice fades to reveal a mediocre white man who no longer deserves his position as a cultural tastemaker, and who’s used black talent to prop up his stardom, it’s time we accept that we’re the ones who put him there. It’s like he’s our… mirror, and it doesn’t feel so good.