You can’t really know a song until it’s mixed with sweat and wandering thoughts, which is something I’ve been trying to keep in mind when listening to Justin Timberlake’s new, highly-anticipated LP Man of the Woods. While Timberlake’s January 6 Instagram post revealed a 16 tracklist, the only song in my sights was “Montana,” one of a very few songs that honor my state of residence. I wanted to make the experience of listening to it as “authentic” as possible, piping it through headphones as a took a walk through a snowy wood or gazed out from my yard on the majesty of the surrounding Northern Rockies. And while I would still like to do those things, Man of the Woods was released at the very dark hour of 10pm MT, several hours from sunrise. So I listened to “Montana” for the first time inside my Montana living room on my Montana couch, but with the memories of my most sentimental — and outdoorsy — Montana memories playing in my mind.
This was a perfect state of mind for the song, which is a nearly 5-minute reminiscence about a romantic time in the mountains with a loved one. Timberlake’s mountain peak-high vocals swim between the funky drumbeat, spacey synths, and glittery guitar strums of the throwback to 70s disco and soul. On a bridge that flirts equally with being cinematic and impossibly cheesy, he sets the scene with lines like “When the moon wakes up the sun, and our shadows cast up on the mountains, it gives the stars something to watch.” However, the song’s steady tempo and commitment to vintage sounds lend themselves nicely to panoramic memories of an unreal — for an East Coast kid, at least — landscape. It’s a song aimed toward those moments, both quiet and loud, that allow you to step outside of your life in the grind to look anew at the wondrousness of the place you are currently in.
Though Timberlake has been called out for romanticizing Montana in historically predictable ways, “Montana” is an ode to a more personal romanticization and one that’s just a bit easier to find oneself caught up in. I wasn’t surprised, upon watching Timberlake’s interview with Zane Lowe, to learn the song was partially inspired by the singer’s memories of falling in love with and proposing to his wife Jessica Biel in the state.
While the song finds success in talking about the kind of memories we later varnish and keep as mental mantelpieces, memory is also part of what I see as its downfall. After seeing the tracklisting I thought for sure that “Montana” was going to be more akin to what I actually heard on “Flannel,” the album’s unsuccessful foray into an indie folk sound. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the song wasn’t dictated by the aesthetics of Timberlake’s now-infamous teaser video. Still, the song is so faithfully dedicated to its decades-old referents that its being tangentially about Big Sky Country is sadly the only novel thing about it. “Montana” so seduces you into its playfully sexy, idealistic swirls that it approaches the territory of pretty good cover songs that make you desperately miss the originals.
It had me making a mental playlist of songs it evoked that I couldn’t wait to listen to next — some “I’d Rather Be With You” by Bootsy Collins, some Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” — all songs that move me immensely when I hear them in ways that Timberlake attempts to replicate, without the underlying spark of something new. Even so, “Montana” is quite nice to hear in Montana. I’ll save it for the outdoors.