Opening Letters

A Man in the Woods Critiques a Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake’s new brand of woodsy aesthetic feels a little shallow

Nickolas Butler |

On Feb. 2, Justin Timberlake drops Man of the Woods, his fifth studio album. In a one-minute promotional video for Man of the Woods that has the aesthetic of a Woolrich catalogue combined with the winter-and-fire cinematic appeal of The Revenant, we are introduced to a newly branded JT. The Tennessee native is seen walking between resting autumnal corn, tangling with what appears to be a whipping willow, wading in a stream, dancing between bonfires, nuzzling with his wife and baby, and leaping – just leaping about, like a carefree boy on a playground. In several shots, his wide eyes appear haunted. (By what?)  The shifting naturalistic background behind JT is a collage of seasons, weather, and landscapes. Mountains, cornfields, prairies, forests …  JT is everywhere, and he is more often than not wearing expensively layered jackets (I lost count after #6) and plaid.

“Watching Justin Timberlake frolic around a snowy meadow or play tag between a series of bonfires made me want to straight-up sell my house, my land, my pickup truck, my Woolrich jackets, and move to Los Angeles, get a spray-tan, and start eating healthier.”

As a man who lives in a house in the woods of Wisconsin let me say this: Watching Justin Timberlake frolic around a snowy meadow or play tag between a series of bonfires made me want to straight-up sell my house, my land, my pickup truck, my Woolrich jackets, and move to Los Angeles, get a spray-tan, and start eating healthier.  Look, I’ve tapped into the sort of zeitgeist that Timberlake is milking with Man of the Woods, yes – definitely. But I live here. I grew up here. And I didn’t conflate the American Rockies with an Iowa cornfield. Nor did I ever pretend that I just, you know, hang out in a creek, half-naked, looking soulful. The New York Times came to my house and made me walk around in bone-chilling cold. When they wanted a shot of me and a bonfire, I made the bonfire, and then sat next to it. Because I was freezing. 

My wife and I have a 5-year old daughter. She loves the movie Trolls. She could watch Trolls on an endlessly repeating loop for the next several years. And she loves Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” – that catchy single that proved a ready-made No. 1 hit. The video for “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” looks about as different from Man of the Woods as could be possible. In “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” JT is bedecked all in tight white clothing, and at his NSYNC best – bouncing, smiling, and prancing about an urban environment as if high on life. I really admire this incarnation of JT, to be honest. It takes cajones for a grown man to display that kind of disregard, that carefree happiness. I don’t begrudge anyone their right to dance. Give me enough beers and some Billy Idol and I like dancing, too.

Also – this isn’t the first time I’ve rejected Justin Timberlake.

About four years ago now, I was sitting in a Beverly Hills breakfast spot, brunching with five movie producers.  At the time, they were all hot to make a movie of my first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. “Well,” I asked, “who do you see in the role of Leland?” “I think Justin Timberlake would be perfect,” at least two of the producers said. To which, I kid you not, I stopped eating my breakfast, and laid my forehead on the table for a matter of 10 seconds in abject horror and disappointment. I didn’t even say anything. I just sort of shut down. Timberlake! I could not in my wildest imaginations picture JT drinking at the Cleghorn Keg or the Brackett Bar. I could not envision him melding into the fabric of small-town Wisconsin any more than I saw myself fitting into the Hollywood “scene.” Eventually, I rejoined breakfast.

Two days ago I was driving over the Birch Street Bridge to deposit my kids at school. The thermometer read -14. The river was steaming like it was on fire and a man was dragging himself miserably across the bridge. You could see it on his pale, unshaven, raw face – he was desolate. I was miserable too: pale and slightly overweight and hiding behind a beard. I believe that winter can be a magical time, yes. But I don’t believe in magic when the temperature is below zero, no. I only believe in staying alive.

And this is what bothers me about JT’s foray into a more naturalistic, less-poppy (sort of a Trolls reference), more Bon Iver-like music – it feels anything but organic. When you listen to Justin Vernon’s music, or Charlie Parr’s, or even the Fleet Foxes or Bjork for that matter, there isn’t any doubt that winter is behind the musical notes. Brutal, silent, cold, winter. And their music isn’t a put-on. It is a true extension of who they are. The old adage is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I believe that. In writing fiction, for example, I’ve often heard teachers and even colleagues advise young writers to try and copy their hero’s work. The idea is that no one can ever quite duplicate Jesus’ Son or The Shipping News or On the Road. You might be playing some of the same keys, yes, but not with the same precision, not in the same order, not with the same genius. So, to the musicians in Bon Iver or Mumford & Sons, I guess you should feel flattered.  

Any artist who endures, whose work is relevant over decades, must reinvent, must find ways to speak to new generations. Maybe that’s what Man of the Woods is: a dramatic, flannel-covered pivot away from Trolls, in the way Madonna co-opted gay cowboys or Kabbalah; a new direction. That’s fine, I guess. But it’s hard for me to applaud this incarnation of JT. Maybe it’s because my nose is running, or because I’m Vitamin D deficient. Maybe it’s because spring is still five months away. Or maybe it’s because my hands are too cold. I can’t applaud anything. It hurts.