“Say Something,” the new single from Justin Timberlake‘s new album Man of the Woods, is the first of the record’s three singles to actually approach the idea of the “woods”–the thing that has spurred all the jokes about Bon Iver. Featuring country superstar Chris Stapleton, the “woods” of “Say Something” are, as you might have predicted, an ambiguous, wholly invented place in musical realization: the most facepalm-worthy type of appropriative musical bromide.
It’s safe to say that “Say Something” is the closest thing we’ve heard to what Timberlake, in a recent album trailer, called his newfound “modern Americana with 808s,” with the production coming from longtime Timberlake confidants and proven pop miracle workers Timbaland and Danja. Alas, their baroque percussion work and atmospheric synths create an uncomfortable brew when blended with loud acoustic guitar strumming, with chords that make it come off more like a 2003 Lifehouse ballad than a Alan Jackson song or something in line with Stapleton’s own best work.
In congregating to rig up Timberlake’s over-customized, genre-defiant, but definitively market-ready version of music of the “woods,” this undoubtedly talented team created a monster. There are some handclaps, some Santana-like guitar crocheting, and African-and-Latin-adjacent percussion rhythms, each importing a misplaced bit of exoticism that’s hard to account for at all. What “woods” has Timberlake been visiting, exactly? Punctuated with arbitrary shards of trap hi-hats, the confusing combination of elements results in a wholly funk-free backing track.
Perhaps to go as far as declaring this song to be a “monster,” in the pejorative sense, is inflating the stakes too much. After hearing “Say Something” enough times, it will likely transition from a perplexing aberration into innocuous doctor’s office music. It is certainly not as grating as the similarly nonsensical amalgamation “Supplies,” Timberlake’s most musically demented offering from Man of the Woods so far. Still, it’s really hard not to hear this song’s bellowing, platitudinous hook–let alone Stapleton’s apparent “Ebony and Ivory” interpolation, or the constant, meaningless references to unspecified “transgressions” and how to talk about them–and get frustrated by the middle-aged Justin Timberlake’s persistent bad taste. He seems to be unwilling to stop cherrypicking from musical genres song-to-song and smudging out everything that is good about them. He hasn’t even been able to sell a fairly straight-ahead Marvin Gaye rip lately.
By “sell,” of course, I only mean figuratively. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” quite literally did sell, reigning as a No. 1 hit for weeks. Who am I to wag my finger, then? Even “Say Something” will probably chart well. But here’s the final caveat emptor: if you’re looking for clever, poignant, or just remotely sensical turns of phrase, a inescapable hook, or music your body could comfortably move to, “Say Something” is not the 2018 Justin Timberlake single for you. You’d be better off with “Filthy,” believe it or not.