Justin Timberlake's new album reminded me how hard it is to create stuff
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Last month, Justin Timberlake released a new album titled Man of the Woods that got quite the gamut of negative reviews.
Here's a sampling:
From Pitchfork: "It’s remarkable how few ideas are contained within this hour-plus Blue Ridge Mountains mood board of an album. Man of the Woods is a misstep large enough to merit relitigating Justin Timberlake’s status as a pop superstar. How much of his career should we chalk up to fortune, privilege, and an essential malleability?"
From The New York Times: "We are now approaching the 12th year of the national delusion that Justin Timberlake remains an essential pop star."
From The Daily Beast: "In this climate, Timberlake has become inessential. Hence Man of the Woods, his purported attempt to strip down to the basics and reveal what’s behind the pop veneer in the way that his contemporaries have. Unfortunately, the album reveals that there’s…nothing there."
*breathes in through the nose, out through the mouth. eyelids slowly close as fingers push on eyeballs in an attempt to make it stop*
I didn't read these reviews before I listened. And, for the most part, I actually really liked the album, and I still like it. There are parts that I don't love, but I certainly didn't listen and want to punch a hole in the wall, as it seems that's how some of his critics felt. In fact, his duet with Alicia Keys in "Morning Light" is ethereal, I had been preforming it for my kids non stop the weekend it came out, hair brush and all. Newsweek said it best: "Arguably the best thing on here, "Morning Light" finds Timberlake duet with Alicia Keys on a sleepy-soulful ode to romantic contentment. The vintage soul samples and thumping 808 accompaniment feel like a throwback to early Kanye West." And who doesn't love early Kanye West? Late Registration and College Dropout take me straight back to Springtime in Baltimore during my early college days in the mid aughts.
Still, many felt it lacked cohesion.
From Rolling Stone: "Of course, by playing so fast and loose with genre, Timberlake fails to see the forest for the trees. Man of the Woods is easily the least cohesive listen from the man who gave us a post-millennial robo-Thriller (2002's Justified), an EDM-anticipating collection of extended art-pop (2006's Futuresex/Lovesounds) and two discs of impossibly bloated yet stylistically confident grooves (2013's 20/20 Experience). Here, Timberlake freely switches between the autobahn and the dirt road, and it's hard to follow him down every detour."
And from The Guardian: "Man of the Woods may be Timberlake’s riskiest musical venture to date. Its USP is “Americana with 808s”, an attempt by the singer and producers Timbaland and the Neptunes to meld the country and western and southern rock of his native Tennessee with latterday R&B. Cue songs with names such as Livin’ Off the Land, guest appearances from the Nashville star Chris Stapleton, a songwriting credit for Toby Keith and so much lyrical boosting of Timberlake’s southern roots that it’s hard not to feel he may be laying it on a bit thick."
To be fair, both of those reviews are not wrong, exactly. It is an eclectic, but ambitious album. However, I actually enjoyed the lack of cohesiveness, if you want to call it that. But I wouldn't. I would argue that the cohesiveness of the album lives in all of the different sounds and styles and topics and interests as he, seemingly ironically, tries to boil down and get closer to what actually matters in life. But that's just it! We are all just trying to do our best to figure this thing out, no? And there is a lot going on as we do that. We get distracted and fall in love and fail tests and gain friends and lose friends and birth babies and make the beds and go back to school and stare at the bank account, trying to will it to add a zero at the end of the balance. We want to laugh and love a good cry (I do, anyway) and inevitably ache. We ache when we have to leave our child in a new classroom trying to hold back her tears as she tackles her third school in four years (she did it like a boss, as did the boy.)
There is sex and love and attraction and fatherhood and a song about flannel shirts in this album. It represents the complexity of humanity, individually and collectively; about how we don't fit into neat little boxes and are not defined by 150 characters or a single personality trait or even streamlined desires and ideologies. Even the album cover portrays the two sides of the same coin idiom—we see Timberlake half dressed in a suit with the other half in jeans and a flannel shirt , the image slashed diagonally as if ripped by a human hand. It's intentionally messy. Contradiction—messiness—is inherent and maybe even essential to human nature. Walt Whitman said it best in his poem Song of Myself: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
Again, I repeat: I very much liked this album while other people seem genuinely offended by its existence. But despite how much I've already almost unwittingly gotten into the weeds of the merits of the album itself—since I'm not really even in a position to do that since I can't articulate the difference between a tune and a melody—that's not initially why I began writing this.
I began writing because listening to this album and then reading listeners' and critics' reactions got me thinking about how hard it is to create things knowing that there will be people who dislike and maybe even hate what you've created. This is at the heart of the warring desires of the creative process, because while it may not matter what other people think of what you or I have created, we still want our material to matter itself. I would venture a guess that a lot of the people who make things are like me—we create for the pure joy of the craft itself, yes; but we also don't desire to have our stuff exist in a vacuum. We want it to be read and heard and watched and seen. Simultaneously, we also want to be honest in what we are creating; free from the restraints of speed over quality and what will get the most likes based on what is trending. We want our work to be thoughtful and smart and good. We want to move people, to change minds (sometimes our own minds), to start conversations, and if you'll allow me to be really ambitious—to concurrently make the world better place and pay the bills. Show me the money, Jerry.
And yet, the end result is only half of the story. The process of getting there is where we realize that, actually, getting there is somewhat of a myth. We may start things and finish things—which is revolutionary in itself when you have unlimited access to pictures of baby penguins and information about wormholes and clips of Jerry Maguire—but there are always more things. So we start things and finish things and skin our knees in the process and love the thing madly and swaddle it gently in an organic blanket spun from the cotton candy hair of fairies and then! Then we release it into the world to possibly be charbroiled, chewed up and then spit out, which might be lunacy. But we do it anyway because we want to help and we want applause. We want to know that we are here.
My gut tells me that the only way to do this is to show up with consistency. To drive the cars and write the words and grind the coffee and speak kindly and maybe (definitely) delete Twitter from the phone and walk into that jungle of a classroom, so shaky and nervous you just might yark* up the blueberry waffles your mom insisted you eat. But on the other side of that possibly vomity coin, you're also undeniably here. You're alive.
*what a great word, right?! I came across yark in Stephen King's memoir On Writing: "I felt all right for awhile, and then I yarked all over the floor. Eula-Beulah laughed, then went upside my head, then shoved me in to the closet and locked the door. Pow." (p. 21) God, I love it.