This was originally posted on Medium.
I reviewed Justin Timberlake’s extremely unassuming concept album Man of the Woods and it’s easily the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. There’s (almost) no music on it whatsoever, and yet art must be examined and explored, so here it is, a track-by-track journey through the brazenly weird and indulgent spectacle.
From the get-go, Timberlake is sure as hell what he wants to do without really knowing what he wants from it. He explains his album’s concept to a therapist, not directly to the listener, about his eagerness to record everything he does and separate the great from the good. In the process, he’d like to “disappear from the filthy life [he’s] known.” The inspiration, as it turns out, comes from Dave Grohl. See, toward the end of the ’90s, the Foo Fighters frontman was drinking himself into oblivion in Los Angeles. Feeling the weight of indulgence and the filth of the city, Grohl bought a quiet house in Virginia and turned the basement into a studio. His two bandmates — “this was before they started sizing up like the Polyphonic Spree,” clarifies Timberlake — joined him and all the three of them did was hang out, barbecue, and work on There Is Nothing Left to Lose, arguably their strongest record. “It just always sounded like the best recording process imaginable,” Timberlake says. He’s not wrong either. I’m entirely onboard at this point. Then he adds, “I just don’t want my record to sound like Hole.” This comment sends me into a mouth-foaming frenzy. I immediately hatch a plan to kidnap his former brotherhood of *NSYNC before realizing I’d have just as easy a time getting the pop star to pay out a Backstreet Boy ransom these days. By the time I try to lure/add these goofs on LinkedIn, I consider the whole revenge plot pointless and give up, ultimately and reluctantly returning to the album.
2. “Midnight Summer Jam”
This entire track is just Timberlake making a playlist for cooking and there’s no cohesion to it whatsoever. The lineup starts with a Parliament “booty banger” — his words, not mine — and ends with a Christmas song. His own “Can’t Stop the Feeling” makes an appearance, but I can’t fault him for it. That song’s a blast. However, I honestly can’t tell if Timberlake knows he recorded it.
If not for the sensational closer, this would be the album’s standout track. It’s just Timberlake going over his favorite recipe for a ginger barbecue sauce. It’s the only time headdresses the audience directly and he is tremendously invested in it. His tone is level-headed and charming, and he tells the listener they can do it, no problem, at least a half-dozen times. I kind of understand why everyone crushes on him here. I have a brief moment of falling in love with him too. He looks like Ryan Gosling, but has the approachability of Jimmy Fallon. Alas, the only time I’ve related to Cameron Diaz is short-lived.
4. “Man of the Woods”
Shortly after being introduced to Justin the Chef, we’re met with Justin the Pop Singer talking about shedding his skin to become Justin the Man of the Woods. The whole pitch sounds way more Red Dragon than I think he intends, as he goes on and on about “the glory of the wilderness” and his intentions to “kill self to become more and beyond.” Then he gets distracted with listing things you can do in the woods, ranging from enjoying tranquil hikes along a foggy coast to creeping around the edges of a farmer’s property and stealing looks at the missus from the dark canopy of a woodland haven. The track ends with him simply naming birds, some of which aren’t even found in forested areas.
5. “Higher, Higher”
Timberlake gets so damn excited about his own idea that he puts on a Pat Boone record — no idea which one, they all sound the same to me — and proceeds to dance-complete packing a duffel bag while smoking several joints and calling his posse one by one to explain the upcoming weekend plans and the “miracle project that’ll finally wipe Tom DeLonge and his beloved Angels & Airwaves clean off the face of the musical earth.” I can’t even tell you what this means. He gets so high it’s almost a coded language rooted in pop culture references (even replacing the word “Machiavellian” with “”McConaugheyian”). After a coughing fit that a tween would consider amateur, he takes to microwaving burritos and singing to them and the world somehow starts making sense again.
A day or two later, with his friends rounded up in the driveway — I don’t catch any names — Timberlake and his crew pile into two or three cars and head out. Timberlake, both figuratively and literally, waves goodbye to his old life. He doesn’t mention his family, but he apparently has a soft spot for the community pool, because he tearfully talks the driver into pulling over for that one, claiming it could’ve been his parent in another life. I think he’s STILL high. Actually, given a few off-hand comments, I’m pretty sure he made shroom burritos, which makes him smarter than Neil DeGrasse Tyson in my book.
Arriving at the campsite, Timberlake proceeds to list off what he forgot to bring, which appears to be practically everything. Someone suggests visiting the general store and Timberlake clarifies that he needs specific items. There is a disorienting interlude of silence.
8. “Morning Light”
As far as I can tell, this is just Timberlake providing Alicia Keys (who I guess is also there?) with a detailed account of how his wife doesn’t know where he is — “gone by morning light,” he says with a wink I can hear. He mentions downloadable content that includes blueprints of their home and sketches he made visualizing his escape. Keys asks if everything is okay at home. Timberlake asks who’s asking. Keys asks what. Timberlake then also asks what. After a breathy silence, Keys quietly sings “this girl is so tired” to herself. Timberlake counters this out of nowhere with, “So what’s up with horses? They cool?”
9. “Say Something”
Although the conversation occurs in the growing distance, away from the hot mic — which Timberlake continually refers to as Keaton, because Michael Keaton is “the hottest Mike,” a joke that he explains no less than ten times — it seems that Keys bails on “whatever Deliverance tribute this hipster summer camp is turning out to be” and leaves. Timberlake, to his credit, isn’t mad; instead, he simply says, as if doves are landing on his sunshine-drenched arms, “She doesn’t get it.” That’s when Chris Stapleton (who is ALSO there, I guess?) asks if they’re going to record any music today. With the airy reassurance of a demigod at the end of an orgy, Timberlake breathily informs the country star, “We are the music and we are not ready.” Stapleton sighs and ultimately flags down Keys for a ride.
10. “Hers (Interlude)”
This title makes no sense. The only explanation I can figure is that it was supposed to be “Covers (Interlude)” and the phone call cut out when Timberlake drunk-dialed his producer, who only heard the last part. It’s just increasingly drunker versions of “Wagon Wheel” around a campfire. Seriously, it’s the same song over and over and over, progressively getting sloppier, but that doesn’t stop Timberlake from repeatedly yelling, “Hell yeah! Was that ____________?” One time, it’s “the Stones”; another, it’s “Jack Johnson,” who Timberlake seems to believe he played in a Saturday Night Livesketch. [It was actually Bon Iver and he was very good.] Each question ends with Timberlake doing a finger snap (that he assumedly completes with an extended throw of his entire arm) and then takes the loudest sip of a tall boy you’ve ever heard. It’s barely sunset.
Timberlake, it turns out, did not come entirely unprepared. Now that it’s a chilly night, he reveals how he “brought enough flannel to date Seattle,” a sentence he promptly writes down as a catchy slant rhyme for his upcoming “Chris Pine phase,” which he corrects to his “Chris Evans phase.” [He of course means Chris Gaines, the bad boy rock star alter ego of Garth Brooks.] I imagine Timberlake has apparently not been to Washington since Amazon crept in like Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X. Still, his flannel collection sounds impressive, as he describes the ideal occasion for wearing each one, based on the color palette alone. His ruminations range from a green-and-blue flannel for a casual fundraiser at a juicery to a fire-colored flannel for The Hunger Games, which he mistakes as “the first movie Stanley Tucci’s directed since Big Night.” [To clarify, Tucci acted in the franchise, but didn’t direct any of the films. He’s directed, as well as written, several films since Big Night, which I hoped Timberlake would call Biggie Nights or In the Big of the Night. He doesn’t.] This has a nice ending though, as Timberlake invites everyone to try on the flannels, so he can go around praising how good they look. Each dude is allowed to keep the one he looks best in and I was suddenly mad I wasn’t present for the flannel that one of the guys quietly refers to as “the ugliest thing since the Dallas revival,” a burn that truly floors me.
This is actually a very pleasant group conversation about the state of Montana until a debate arises if there is, in fact, a city of “Hannah” there. Timberlake admits that he’s pretty sure there isn’t, but wants to know for sure because that’d be “so funny.” This is followed by several minutes of everyone quietly trying to get service. Eventually, the conversation splits off into entirely separate dialogues, one about Glacier National Park and one about the neurological effects of molly. The track closes with Timberlake drunkenly posing what he seems to believe is a riddle, “What’s a party in the USA?” There are two admirable attempts at solving the puzzle — “The GOP” and “any gathering that has more than one bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos” — as well as several sorta-guesses, ranging from “Andrew WK” to “hey man, what isn’t a party.” Timberlake stifles a few crafty giggles throughout. Once everyone gives up, he sings the line, “It’s a party in the USA.” A frustrated wave of understanding weaves through the woods.
13. “Breeze Off the Pond”
Hoping to “sober up enough to find wood sprites and trap them in a collection of jars called our hearts,” Timberlake and crew stand at the edge of the nearby pond (“nature’s diffuser of our most essential oil — water,” the pop singer somehow calls it). There’s a howl, which spooks all of the men except Timberlake, who whispers, “I’ve found you, my mad bitch.” In the moment that follows, I swear, you can hear the drunken necks crack as they all turn to their (honestly and truly) fearless leader. Timberlake calls out with a terrifying sound I can’t even begin to describe before he laughs heartily and mightily. I assume he’s not wearing a shirt here. He sounds shirtless. He sounds shirtless as hell.
14. “Livin’ Off the Land”
No joke, this whole track is just Timberlake drunkenly trying to eat stuff — mostly berries and leaves. His friends gently talk him out of the desire finally, but he straight up tries to gobble a frog, which I’m pretty sure he considered an edible, since he goes off about licking toads. He’s SO drunk. I know this because he also mentions beating Battletoads in Battlemaniacs on Super Nintendo and that nonsense was borderline impossible. If true, this is more impressive than the shroom burritos. I kind of fall in love again.
15. “The Hard Stuff”
After an extraordinarily sloppy false start to New Kids on the Block’s “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” Timberlake proceeds to hype a drink that seems to just be Bacardi 151 chased with hipster moonshine made by his friend, a dealer known only as Kicks. The move doesn’t take. Timberlake coughs until the track ends. Somehow, it’s not an hour but it feels like it.
16. “Young Man”
This is so very far and away the best track on the album; I can’t help but ask questions. And they are not simpleton curiosities about the direction of music or the (arguable) evolution of art; I have burning inside me what are, at minimum, neuron-assassinating attempts at coming to terms (grips?) with existence, mortality, and what may come in the unknown that follows, whether it be total darkness or a daydreamy box social among the stars.
Here, we listen to Timberlake’s comrades say good night to each other, which is undeniably precious and insanely cute — I’m pretty sure Kicks lullabies someone to sleep — and then there are only the sounds of the wilderness. We finally hear this prophesied “Man of the Woods” in his element. In the alluring respite, Timberlake hums to himself beside the pond, head against a log and I assume hands folded across his chest. He drifts off adorably into slumber and you believe this to be the end of the album. What else is there to a Man of the Woods at the end of a night? However, this is not the end; it is only the beginning. I recognize the cliché here, yet, I swear on all that has led me to this moment in history, it is anything but.
Timberlake stirs and sits up — I assume crossing his legs, facing the pond — and his voice reemerges, more angular and bold, almost rehearsed, and what follows is, without a single hint of the remotest doubt, the most robust meditation I have ever heard on ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. He touches on how, if all holy texts were woven together, tightened up and ordered — not entirely unlike the Boiled Leather version of the fourth and fifth books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series — humanity would have every single answer they crave about theology. He doesn’t necessarily claim there to be a definitive god or goddess (and, as he explains in incredible, pretty much unfathomable depth, even this consideration of male god or female goddess is “as narrow a light in the world as a single ray of sunshine sweeping past teeth”). Timberlake suggests that the meaning of life is so all-encompassing it is essentially rendered meaningless. Toward the end, he poses a question I honestly haven’t stopped thinking about: “Would you, and could you, worship air? Should you, a creature of finite capability, dedicate your waking actuality to something as entirely indifferent to your life as it is your death, even though it is the only thing separating the two for you?”
By now, you likely share the notion that gave me chills so aggressively I thought my spine shattered. It’s not Timberlake. Or it’s his body, sure, but whatever truth rings out from his mouth with his voice has not been sourced from his consciousness. Timberlake, I suspect, is merely an amplifier here, a singer being used as mere instrument. Whether alien or god/goddess — Timberlake’s right, divine masculine and/or divine feminine is a patronizingly elementary observation of the assumed universe-creator, which may be a family or even an entire species — the entity that performs on this track is the most important individual and/or group that has blessed our world with a presence.
This monologue is a good 15 minutes and it simultaneously feels a week long and only a few seconds. I remember when I first heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor in high school and naively barked at a kickback, “This is as deep as it goes!” But, seriously, Timberlake makes Godspeed sound like The Ataris. Timberlake (or whoever/whatever speaks through him) drops a “genre” of music that can only be described with the word ‘post’ and a militia of exponentials. It’s post-post-post-music/art/infinity and it nourished me like a flood and abandoned me dry. I know how this sounds. It’s…insane. I FEEL insane. But it’s beautiful. It’s SO beautiful. This world is as saturated as it is empty and I for one cannot wait for the follow-up album, if only for the nurturing dream of further ethereal guidance. I hope Timberlake (and whatever briefly visited, or continues to lurk within, him) shows up to Grammys, unhinges his jaw, and devours the building and its concept, blessing them with annihilation for cursing us with rudimentary sounds we believed to be “music” all these years.
Now we know the brilliant truth. This is the light. You are all welcomed to it.