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Justin Timberlake - Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake has not become Bon Iver

After teasing a return to his Southern roots in the run-up to the announcement of new album Man of the Woods, JT’s new song is a slice of robo-sex future-funk – sadly, it still sucks

When Justin Timberlake announced his new album Man of the Woods earlier this week, it was with a teaser trailer that opened on JT’s raw, unaccompanied voice, forests-’n’-fields imagery, and a monologue from the artist: “This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any album I’ve ever written, where I’m from. And it’s personal.”

When a western, usually male artist wants to go ‘personal’ or discover something ‘authentic’ about themselves, that usually means reconnecting with nature. You go off to the countryside, the mountains, or the woods, you close yourself from any outside influences, and you ditch the perceived trappings of pop, rap, soul, and electronic music to instead embrace folk and country. “Mountains, trees, campfires – like, wild west, but now,” Timberlake’s wife Jessica Biel intones in the album trailer.

Records like For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver (who Justin Timberlake once impersonated on SNL) put a contemporary spin on the romantic idea of isolating yourself in a remote cabin to make Real Music, and much of America’s artistic expression has grappled with the folklore of the frontier and the old west. Timberlake is from Tennessee, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not from a southern state, or if you’re even American at all – the actor Kiefer Sutherland, who was born in London before spending a good part of his upbringing in Toronto, released an album of country rock songs in 2016 with grizzled track names like “Not Enough Whiskey”.

A year into Trump’s presidency, these cliches don’t hold as much sway as they used to, and Timberlake was ridiculed for his supposed change in direction. “Justin Timberlake is rebranding as a white man,” ran a headline in The Outline. The perception was that Timberlake, as a white man, had adopted hip hop and R&B to further his own career only to seemingly discard it when it was no longer needed. It brought to mind a similar move by Miley Cyrus recently, as well as memories of Timberlake’s infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ incident with Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl, which (as a ten-year retrospective essay for Gawker painstakingly outlined) did little to damage his own career but a lot to damage a black woman’s.

In the end, though, that backlash might have been a little premature. Earlier today JT released “Filthy”, the first new single from the album, and it’s… well, it’s a Justin Timberlake song. There’s the future-funk groove, the Prince-like vocal, the moves, and a video where Timberlake does his best Steve Jobs impression before giving the dancefloor over to a robot. Not a single blade of grass in sight.

Unfortunately, the song still sucks. Timberlake has been treading water for a while now, with his bloated The 20/20 Experience dragging on for 70 minutes before he decided it was a good idea to release The 20/20 Experience Pt. 2, a tune-free follow-up that dragged on for an even longer 74 minutes. Meanwhile his single “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, recorded for the Trolls movie, was as anodyne as it was inescapable – it somehow ended up being his biggest hit, currently sitting at a mind-boggling 700m+ plays on Spotify. “Filthy” is better than all of those, but it still sounds dated, it still loses any tension built up by its stadium-rock intro within a few seconds of its wobbly bass drop, and (most horrifyingly for a song that purports to be filthy), it’s still strangely sexless. It’s likely to be everywhere though, and you’ll probably end up dancing to it despite yourself.

The album is still called Man of the Woods, so it’s still possible that he’ll make good on his promise of going country with future releases – though with Timbaland, Danja, and Pharrell all shown in the trailer, it’s not likely to be a huge sonic departure. It’s out on February 2, two days before Timberlake returns to the Super Bowl, and a new video is slated to come out every week starting January 18, so brace yourself for a month of wall-to-wall JT content.