‘This song should be played very loud,’ reads the childish caption on the cover of ‘Filthy’, the long-awaited comeback single from Justin Timberlake. Just a few days ago, Timberlake announced his upcoming album Man Of The Woods along with a promo video that was, frankly, hilarious in its earnestness. The clip showed a rugged Timberlake cavorting through big landscapes, stepping pensively through corn fields and running across expansive fields. It was a ridiculous introduction to Timberlake’s new era, made even more ridiculous by the voiceover promising an album that sounds like “Wild West… but now.”
It meant nothing, a vomit of words and imagery strung together like a Pinterest mood board. Now the first single is actually here, the promo video is even more confusing. ‘Filthy’ doesn’t sound like bonfires or mountains, it sounds like a man determined to get back on the cutting edge of pop, but losing his way amidst conflicting ideas and outdated, embarrassing lyrics.
On the plus side, ‘Filthy’ is head and shoulders above the lobotomised ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’, Timberlake’s last smash hit. On his new track, Timberlake makes a concerted effort to step into uncharted territory, building the song around a gyrating bassline that suggests something futuristic, a theme that’s explored further in the sci-fi video featuring a horny robot. But the swaggering future-disco is muddied by rock interruptions, the track spluttering into a clumsy guitar and drum breakdown before slinking back into its R&B groove. This jarring toing and froing makes for a confusing listen and one that prohibits any real flow.
Timberlake’s writing is stuck in the past, his references to ‘haters’ and ‘swagger’ feeling more at home on a Cher Lloyd single than a track striving to carve out a fresh new sound. “You know this ain’t the clean version,” Timberlake croons over the warped, snaking groove, apparently unaware that (one gruesome meat reference aside) there’s really nothing filthy about ‘Filthy’ at all. It’s a radio-friendly bit of foreplay, only made sexual by the unnecessary orgasmic gasps littered throughout. Timberlake is – for the first time – unconvincing as a Romeo, his flirting stilted and awkward.
There are moments when ‘Filthy’ feels like it’s about to hit its stride, especially towards the end when a disorienting clash of electronics kicks things into gear. But this is quickly halted by a change of direction, Timberlake returning to the joyless refrain before concluding the song with a female voice asking the listener to “Look closer, through the trees”. It’s a final left-turn on a track full of unconventional decisions, highlighting the lack of coherency in Timberlake’s perplexing new era.
With three more tracks (and videos) on the way before Man Of The Woods is released on February 2nd, perhaps Timberlake’s ambitions will become a little clearer. After promising his new album would focus on his wife, children and home, we’re not sure where ‘Filthy’ came from, but there’s no doubt Timberlake is capable of much better – and much sexier – than this.