Man of the Woods Is Misguided Red-State Kitsch

Justin Timberlake seems to have free-associated most of these songs while flipping through an L.L. Bean mailer.

I never consented to Justin Timberlake’s career. In the 2000s, I watched his solo success lift off with the same gnawing horror I felt about the Iraq War. How, I thought, are we just going to sit here and let this happen? Like that conflict, Timberlake’s career is an excrescence of the Bush era, a lasting trauma with no real justification, and, apparently, no endpoint.

In his 37 years on earth, Timberlake has sold over 32 million records, starred in major motion pictures, won two Emmys, and even started a fashion line. The duration and breadth of his career may seem like indicators of an extraordinary talent. But it’s equally likely that what Timberlake has is not talent, but access, and capital sufficient to retain the services of more talented people. For his latest album, Man of the Woods, he enlisted his old collaborators Timbaland and the Neptunes to shape his midlife disquisitions on flannel into pop tracks, but for all their production acumen, these hitmakers cannot achieve the impossible. Some flavors simply do not pair well, and the prospect of Justin Timberlake plus a dash of country seasoning is about as appetizing as an airport Caesar salad drenched in barbecue sauce.

In its pivot to authenticity, Man of the Woods follows in the footsteps of Joanne, the 2016 album that saved Lady Gaga’s career by integrating Americana and country elements with her pop sensibility. Joanne succeeded in part because it was released prior to Trump’s electoral victory. Gaga can be forgiven for assuming that a dalliance with red-state kitsch would be sort of cute under a Hillary presidency. Timberlake does not have the luxury of that excuse.

More important, Joanne worked because it was an act of demystification for a star most known for artifice. Justin Timberlake, on the other hand, is best known for being a fleshy, Aryan Prince impersonator who slunk away unscathed from a nudity scandal that nearly ended the career of a much more talented woman. What authentic self has he been concealing? What mystery lies un-bared at the core of his persona? If Man of the Woods is to be believed, it is that he likes canoeing and wants to fuck Jessica Biel. The man contains multitudes.

Before going into any detail about the musical or lyrical content of the project, it has to be stated outright that Man of the Woods is a very weird name for an album, and a very weird identity to claim for oneself, especially if one is so obviously not a man of the woods. A promotional trailer, released in early January, shows Timberlake intercut with galloping horses and blazing fires. He runs through frosty fields and stands half-submerged in a river. He looms behind Jessica Biel, herself looking very woodsy in a wide-brimmed Joanne hat, kissing her gingerly on her dewy cheek. Ah, the life of a woodsman. In a voiceover, he declares that, more than anything, these songs are inspired by where he is from. How curious, one thinks. An entire album inspired by Lou Pearlman’s beach house. But no. What he means, broadly speaking, is the American South.

“Y’all can’t do better than this / Y’all can’t do better than this / Act like the South ain’t the shit / Act like the South ain’t the shit,” Timberlake spits at the beginning of “Midnight Summer Jam,” a timely ode to line dancing (“Hey, all of the locals are happy to get out and meet a new face / We dance in circles, on and on, do-si-do, and then we sway”). To issue such a challenge at the outset of the record is foolhardy of him. Many people can and have done much better than this, himself included. Meanwhile, the question of whether the South is or is not “the shit” speaks to an awkward secessionist impulse that is probably better left unexpressed.

The production style on the album, which Timberlake has described as “modern Americana with 808s,” is virtually indistinguishable from that of his previous releases. He is still harmonizing with himself in a girly falsetto over other people’s beats. The only truly Southern thing about the material, aside from an occasional fiddle sample, is that it is chock full of agrarian imagery (“Breeze on the pond;” “shadows cast upon the mountains;” “livin’ on the land;” “flannel”). Timberlake’s lack of lyrical discipline means that these images do not stack up into any sort of coherent vision either of Southern life or of his secret rustic self. Critics like Carl Wilson have pointed to the self-discrediting argument of “Say Something,” his innocuous duet with Chris Stapleton, in which the two lumberjack crooners boldly conclude that “sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”

The imagery of the title track, “Man of the Woods,” is even harder to parse. The jolly chorus goes as follows: “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / Hey, there’s the faucet / Someone’s knocking like they know / But baby, don’t you stop it, yes I’m watching / Your hand slides down the light / And, girl, you know.” What scenario is this describing? There is certainly something lurid in tone, but the nature of it is unclear. Is he watching a woman pleasure herself? What does it mean for your hand to “slide down the light” when your fingers have already been “walking down your legs?” Who is “knocking?” And what does any of this have to do with the woods?

The answer is: Not that much. Timberlake seems to have free-associated most of these songs while flipping through an L.L. Bean mailer. This is a problem for an album that advertises itself as confessional. To what is he confessing? Why would an artist in this age go to such lengths to convince the world that he is able to chop lumber, or that he has a hot wife?

My theory is that Timberlake has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the homoeroticism of his boy-band career, and that this defensive attitude toward his own effeminacy has lead him in the direction of generic machismo. This worked in the 2000s. Unfortunately for him, the pop world has gone completely gay in the intervening decade and half. The gaggle of crooning twinks that have succeeded Timberlake are winning the hearts of boys, girls, and everyone in between, with a kind of lithesome ambisexuality that is completely foreign to him. His no-homo virility has been the centerpiece of his persona since the “Cry Me a River” video, in which he was granted the power of flight in order to better stalk his ex-girlfriend, all the way up to the recent video for this album’s opener, “Filthy,” in which he plays the inventor of a motion-capture robot capable of orchestrating group sex.

Whereas in the past (notably, in previous halftime shows) Timberlake has embodied his masculinity through flirtatious lechery, his Pepsi-Cola halftime show seemed to be more an exercise in the manly virtue of heartlessness. The show, during which he skipped around to the Trolls song looking for all the world like Buck Angel in a burlap sack, has mercifully received scant acclaim. Headlines in the days following claimed that he was “devastated” by the show’s poor critical reception. I have no doubt that he is completely baffled and disconsolate about the end of his pop reign. My advice to him is not to despair—rather, to retreat with his wife and son to a Wi-Fi-enabled cabin in the woods and watch Five Foot Two on Netflix.

Theda Hammel is an incredibly successful model. She has released three EPs (Very Great, SondHamm, and Partial Magic) under the pseudonym HAMM. She has a Masters in Music Technology from NYU Steinhardt.