We were promised woods.
When Justin Timberlake announced his imminent return earlier this week, he did it with a rustic, deeply self-serious album trailer that seemed to have been made by a person who had recently caught The Revenant on TV and had somewhere, once, seen a picture of Bon Iver. “It feels like mountains, trees, campfires,” his wife, Jessica Biel, promised in a voice-over. “Like, Wild, West. Like, now.” The album title sounded like ad copy lifted from the L.L. Bean catalog, or perhaps an early, scrapped idea for the name of a new Axe body spray scent. Man of the Woods.
Maybe the trailer was an about-face. “Filthy,” the single that Timberlake dropped Thursday night, does not sound like a forest so much as a glowing spaceship that landed right in the middle of it, scorching the trees and grass in its wake. It’s a slab of liquid funk that sounds like a new-millennium update of David Bowie’s “Fame,” in the same way that Justin Timberlake has said he considered “SexyBack” a new-millennium update of “Rebel Rebel.” (So: kinda-sorta, and yet at the same time not at all.) Featuring production from longtime JT collaborators Timbaland and Danja (along with some songwriting help from the 20/20 Experience’s James Fauntleroy), “Filthy” is a hell of a lot more fun than Timberlake’s last hit, the Max Martin–produced “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” an anemic, G-rated earworm that earned its spot on the Trolls soundtrack. “Filthy” feels like a welcome throwback to 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds (which is hardly a throwback at all, since that record still sounds like the future): glitchy, digitized funk, propelled by a low-end, bass-y synth riff that wobbles forth like a drunken toddler. “Walk to me!” Timberlake vamps from across the dance floor — delivering it, like every line in “Filthy,” with signature charisma and just the right amount of goofiness. There is a tiny bit of Barry Gibb Talk Show in “Filthy” and its accompanying Steve Jobs–impersonating video, and I mean that as the strongest possible compliment.
The past few days on Planet Timberlake have reminded us of both his superpowers and his kryptonite. There are a lot of things Justin Timberlake can do very well, but singer-songwriter self-seriousness is not one of them. Nobody looks to Timberlake for profundity, and whenever he starts thinking of himself as an artist who can deliver that, we get lyrics like, “Hi my name is Bob, and I work at my job.” Like a Bruno Mars who cut his teeth in the boy-band stratosphere rather than the Tiny Elvis Impersonator circuit, Justin Timberlake is above all things an old-school entertainer, an auteur of wedding-reception floor-fillers and a pop-magician who can conjure fun out of thin air. “Filthy” does just that, with inventive flair. It’s hard not to grin as he croons, “No, this ain’t the cleeeaaan version,” even as his populist sensibility prevents him from uttering any lyrics that would make that line true.
A month from now, Timberlake will play the Super Bowl halftime show. Capping a tumultuous season for the NFL, during which the gridiron has become a site of political controversy, Justin Timberlake was the safest possible choice — the cleeeaaan version. (Especially sans poor Miss Jackson. #JUSTICEFORJANET) It’s highly unlikely that the Man of the Woods will come out in a Colin Kaepernick jersey, take a knee, or do anything even remotely as provocative as Beyoncé did two years ago, when she performed “Formation” in Black Panther regalia. (There have been rumors that Jay-Z might make a surprise guest appearance; let us pray.) Timberlake will probably put on a spectacular show because, as “Filthy” reminds us, he is very adept at opening a big ol’ can of good-time and transporting everybody beyond their cares and worries for four or five or sometimes even eight minutes. That’s not the only thing music can do, of course, and these days it hardly seems like its most vital function, but if you want a halftime show where the scheduled performer might say something meaningful, remember that Kendrick Lamar will have the ear of the president at the CFP National Championship on Monday.
Will Man of the Woods be more “Filthy” than “like, Wild, West, like, now”? It’s still too early to say. This first taste is promising, but Timberlake says three more singles and videos are coming before the album’s February 2 release, so there could still be some puffed-up self-seriousness around the riverbend. In the final moments of “Filthy,” a Bielesque voice beckons, “Do you see me? Can you find me? Look closer, through the trees.” Maybe we’re not out of the woods yet.