“I was just wandering barefoot in the woods of Wisconsin and fashioned this guitar out of a canoe,” said Justin Timberlake, in a 2012 sketch from Saturday Night Live. In the original context, Timberlake was impersonating Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, who had come to congratulate Jay Z and Beyonce on the birth of their daughter, Blue Ivy. But, with the announcement of his fifth studio album, “Man of the Woods,” it has become unclear whether Timberlake was joking or foreshadowing.
The “Man of the Woods” announcement video dropped on Jan. 2, exactly one month before the album is set to release. In it, the “Rock Your Body” singer wanders dramatically through snow-covered fields, rivers, mountaintops and other rustic backdrops, as acoustic guitars strum and Timberlake moans in his signature falsetto. Timberlake declares that his birthplace of Tennessee served as an inspiration for the record, which sort of justifies the sudden change from his usual pop tunes to this new country and folk aesthetic.
Three days later, when the President of Pop announced his tracklisting via Instagram (still better than what the actual president posts on social media), it came as little surprise that it contained nature-centric titles like “Flannel,” “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Breeze Off The Pond.” What did come as a surprise was the title of the track, “Montana,” because, as any self-respecting American with even an inkling of an understanding of geography would certainly know, that is not Tennessee. Another interesting title is “Livin’ Off The Land,” which implies a) Justin Timberlake thinks he’s Henry David Thoreau, and b) a man with an estimated net worth nearing a quarter of a billion dollars claims he doesn’t buy groceries.
The first single to be released was “Filthy,” which begins with distorted guitars, immediately contradicting the country and folk aesthetic. Timberlake repeats the lyrics, “haters gon’ say it’s fake, so real,” to a dubstep bassline, which takes the listener on a nostalgic trip all the way back to 2011. Traditionally, most pop songs contain only a single bassline at a time. This track, produced by the same duo behind “SexyBack,” Timbaland and Danja, breaks that rule entirely by introducing a second, funkier bass overtop the wobbles. Thankfully, the two channels are panned to separate sides, which allows for complexity instead an off-putting clash in the lower frequencies. It’s as if a Prince song plays in the left ear, while Skrillex blares in the right.
Despite claiming “this ain’t the clean version” four times throughout the song, the lyrics aren’t actually that “filthy” (although Jessica Biel’s body being referred to as “meat” is pretty gross). In fact, Timberlake manages to take lyrics from Snoop Dogg’s classic “Gin and Juice” and makes them less sexual. Nothing is really all that interesting about these lyrics; Timberlake relies on heavy repetition of cliche phrases to make the song catchy.
However, the song’s structure is where it becomes interesting. Most pop songs rely on a common ABABCB structure, or a slight variation on this. This song instead uses the unorthodox structure of ABCDECDECABEDCF, which adds to the other subtle complexities. To simplify, AB serves as the intro, C is introduced as the chorus, and then DEC is then repeated twice, allowing the listener to become comfortable with the form. Then, the song returns to the beginning AB, and flips the order to EDC, which throws everything off. The song abruptly slows down on the final chorus, and transitions to F, which contains an ambient outro over which a mysterious woman asks, “Do you see me? Can you find me? Look closer, through the trees, do you see it?”
Naturally, the single was released alongside a music video. The video, directed by Mark Romanek, shows the “Trolls” actor delivering a keynote speech at a future tech conference, in which he showcases an unsettling robot clone who can dance, play soccer and inhale smoke from a bong through his fingertips. By the end of the video, a crew of scantily-clad women rush on stage to dance with robot Justin, who then begins making crude pelvic thrusts at them, and turns into an LED light show. The crowd gives robot Justin a standing ovation which, for whatever reason, causes human Justin to disintegrate into pixels. The rest is left up to the audience to interpret. Perhaps human Justin was a hologram the whole time, or maybe the new robot Justin goes on to become a functional member of society. Regardless, the video comes off like a subpar blend of “Ex-Machina” and “Dirty Dancing.”
The full album of “Man of the Woods” will be released on Feb. 2, two days before his halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl. Hopefully, the rest of the tracks will stick to the Americana theme.