[an examination of JT & Man of the Woods]

I’m not the only person out there a little confused by the new Justin Timberlake project, am I?

For years, people around Nashville have been waiting in anticipation of the fact that JT was moving to town, working with Timbaland on some new country beats, calling his album Man of the Woods and going back to his roots with something he now calls “new Americana”. I was SO excited about it. I didn’t expect him to be donning a hat and boots anytime soon, but at least some soul — something akin to “Drink You Away” and that awe-inspiring Chris Stapleton CMA Awards collaboration that we continue to reference whenever we need to remember how Stapleton broke into the mainstream.

But no.

JT released an album video promo featuring bonfires and fields and bandannas and some brand of earthy spiritualism. It seemed pretty cool….but also a little disingenuine. Was this a man revisiting his roots, having some sort of deep cosmic change within his soul? Or was it a genius marketing ploy that got us to all stop and think and wonder a little bit, only to find that we weren’t about to get any of what we were expecting?

First, “Filthy” came out. And I was SO confused. It was! This was all a joke!

Then “Supplies”. STILL not getting it.

But “Say Something”?. Ok, this was something I could get on board with. But was it for real? And even then, why was I still left needing more out of it?

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I mean, I don’t think Man of the Woods is out to fool us. I just think that Timberlake’s interpretation of getting back to his roots and being one with nature is a little different from the standard perception. And while I  can get on board with some of the tracks as just fun, experimental dance pop with the occasional harmonica and guitar riff scattered in….it’s surely not country. And it’s not Americana. It’s a little bit of a mess that takes several listens to kinda sorta understand.

The hardest part about it is the forced nature of Southern symbols and colloquialisms. Flannel, wood, momma, pie? “Don’t act like the South ain’t the shit,” he proclaims over and over in “Midnight Summer Jam”. And “I brag about you to anyone outside/ but I’m a Man of the Woods, it’s my pride–“

Wait, what?

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Now it was also made known to me that the OG Man of the Woods, 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson (above), told the story of a hermit who took to the mountains to avoid society and socialization. And let’s be honest – even if Justin has grown a little weary of the modern world – he and his music are pretty much the exact antithesis of this sort of life change. Dance music, chill as it might be, is for parties. And people. Lots of people all getting together and dancing about against, around and betwixt each other. And while this album does get personal and show a more down-to-earth version of the pop star, he’s singing about his love of wife, kid and family. Doesn’t sound like a Man of the Woods to me!

 

What it all boils down to is this: nature and travel and country and soul are all becoming very big trends in American culture right now. Just look at the “festival wear” that dons every storefront at the mall come summertime. And there’s a fine line between really truly BEING a composite of those elements….and just trying too hard to be something you’re not, to the point that you’re just confusing everyone. I feel like I struggle with this too….except I’m not a multi-national superstar on a mega platform. I can kinda do and dress however I like.

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But when JT announced both his new album AND his impending Superbowl performance 2 days after the release, I wondered how it would all convincingly come together. Here’s this guy preaching about family and love and going back to your roots – songs to be released symbolizing this massive transformation just days before he is expected to play a medley of all his pop hits on the biggest Halftime show in the world. You had to know right then and there that it wasn’t going to be cohesive. And to be honest, the performance fell a little flat for me. He came out in a fringed leather jacket and stripped that off to reveal a bandanna around his neck and a button up shirt depicting some sort of mountain scene while he sang “Rock Your Body” and “Sexyback”. OK, soooooo?

On the tail end of this (and hopefully the bright side), Dierks Bentley:Country Artist has also announced a new project dropping sometime this spring: The Mountain. Dierks has had his fair share of purist country moments (from his earliest days to the pinnacle of his bluegrass project Up on the Ridge) as well as some critical pitfalls (the radio-savvy “Somewhere on a Beach” and “Black”). I tend to love most of what he does; there’s always an element of soul and genuine emotion that come crashing through on some of the less radio-friendly tracks, and to be honest he’s more “country” than most of the bros out there.

However, after the commercial stalemate of the Black album, he’s supposedly come back reborn with something new. According to an interview with NPR, he holed up in a studio somewhere in Colorado and really dug into something.What that is, we don’t exactly know. I mean, it could’ve been peyote. But you can tell he’s having fun with the re-branding that’s leading up to this album release and I appreciate that.

I also REALLY hope he proves to be more “of the woods” than Timberlake. I have a feeling he could be. I also have a sinking feeling it could be more of the same with a neat visual tie-in. But I’m crossing my fingers for something good! I really am.

Because if this trend really does turn into something like what it’s meant to be, it’s exactly the sort of music I’m vibing for. I Just Need Someone To Do. It. RIGHT.