Sometimes, the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all. I presume that when Justin Timberlake wrote this “Say Something” lyric, he was not referring to his wife Jessica Biel’s spoken-word contributions to his new album, Man of the Woods. Because those spoken words are the best parts of the album, and it is crucial that in those moments, Jessica Biel chose to say something rather than nothing at all.
Man of the Woods is a family album. You can tell by the way Timberlake candidly briefs his 2-year-old son on his plans to have sex with the child’s mother (“Beautiful boy, got it from your mama / Damn, she look good, you might get a sister”). But the starkest—and most recurring—reminder that Man of the Woods is an album about Timberlake’s role as a father and a husband is Biel’s vocal participation. Her voice—a calm, introspective presence—features on five of the album’s 16 tracks. That’s four more times than Chris Stapleton’s voice. On Man of the Woods, Biel is Timberlake’s adulthood personified—his motivation for woodsiness. She is the album’s target audience; its muse; its spiritual guide.
It was Biel—not Timberlake—who laid out the themes for Man of the Woods in the one-minute video announcing the album. “It feels like mountains. Trees. Campfires. Like, Wild West. Like now,” Biel said about the album in her most shaman-y of tones. None of that made sense at the time, and it makes even less sense now. If mountains, trees, and campfires had a feel—which they don’t; they are inanimate objects—it would likely not be the electronic, industrial-sounding funk/pop/country/R&B hybrid that occupies most of Man of the Woods. The only way it’d make sense is if when Biel said, “Like, Wild West,” she was referring to the giant steampunk spider-machine from Will Smith’s 1999 film, Wild Wild West. But Biel is a proprietor of vibes, and as such she does not need to abide by the logic of this bodily world we call Earth.
Following Biel’s spoken-word parts on Man of the Woods, a narrative emerges. At the end of the album’s opening track, “Filthy,” she whispers, “Do you see me? Can you find me? Can you find me? Look closer. Through the trees. Do you see it?” while wind chimes ding and dong and men (of the woods, I’d guess) howl (at the moon, probably). She’s sending Timberlake on a quest to find her, and in doing so, himself. She is Galadriel, and he is Frodo.
Biel briefly appears on “Midnight Summer Jam,” acknowledging that “It’s sweaty out here, baby,” and cackling. When she is heard from next on Man of the Woods, Timberlake has apparently located her, because she is now wearing his shirt. “It feels like … like his skin, over mine,” she says on “Hers (Interlude),” an interstitial occupied by Biel and Biel alone. “And the little holes and tears and shreds on it are, are, are the, the memories of the past that I wasn’t there for but, that somehow I feel like I understand more when it’s against my skin. It’s an armor, like a barrier from the world. Like, our secret nobody else knows. And I like that. You know? It makes me feel like a woman, it makes me feel sexy, it makes me feel … it makes me feel like I’m his.”
Such is the power of flannel, which happens to be the title of the next song.
By the end of “Flannel,” Biel and Timberlake—bonded by wool and woven fabric—have ascended a mountain, and from there they gaze upon the land below, the woods. It is in this moment that Biel helps Timberlake understand that everything they see is everything that makes Timberlake who he is. “Do you see it? Look at all of it from up here. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Do you see it?” she says, the Mufasa of the open frontier. “It’s in the air. It’s in your blood. It’s in your skin. Can you see it from up here? Can you taste it? Can you touch it? It’s in the earth. It’s in the sky.” Through Biel’s words, Timberlake finally grasps his destiny, embraces his karmic origins, and becomes the Man of the Woods. The air, the blood, the skin, the sky, the earth, the Timberlake—they are all one and the same.
And yet, Justin’s journey is not yet complete, because in the closing seconds of “Flannel,” Biel returns to her first inquiries: “Do you see me?” She asks the question four times as her voice fades.
For the next four tracks, Biel disappears. Her spirit is nowhere to be found as the Man of the Woods goes to “Montana,” where he feels the “Breeze Off the Pond,” is “Livin’ Off the Land” and experiencing “The Hard Stuff”—much as God was absent when Jesus ventured into the Judean desert for 40 days and nights to be tempted by Satan. Having accepted his true self, Timberlake must first experience great tribulations before he is rightfully ready to take on the responsibilities that come with being a Man of the Woods.
On “Young Man,” he has passed those tests—his transformation from youthful sex symbol to family man is complete—and for the first time we hear not from Jessica Biel, Soothsayer, but from Jessica Biel, Wife and Mother. She’s there in the beginning of the track—certainly an exhale of a song after 15 tracks of soul searching—and she’s there at the end of it, rooting on her and Timberlake’s son like a proud parent.
“Is it daddy?” she asks little Silas Randall.
“Daddy!” he replies.
“Yeah, that’s daddy,” she coos in response. Her voice is the last one we hear on the album.
The man has made his way through the woods, and has found home. All it took was guidance from the voice of his woman.