Reviewed: Unbreakable by Janet Jackson (2015)
By way of getting back into practice, in my return to music blogging, I am going to go back through the catalog of my favorite musical artist, Janet Jackson.
Unbreakable came out four years ago, and the perspective I’ve gained on the record since it came out has been valuable. Elsewhere on the internet there’s a breathless review I wrote proclaiming this Janet’s best work. Now I can be a little more objective.
Actually, what I said was that this release was a deep, thoughtful, clever record that may come to rival The Velvet Rope as Janet’s magnum opus. So I kind of gave it a close second.
The proverbial tree in the forest that no one is around to hear fall comes to mind. Between 20 and 30 years ago, every moment on a Janet record was a heralded cultural tick of the collective clock. By contrast, only a few hundred thousand die-hard fans bought and digested Unbreakable. It’s impossible to compare apples and really popular apples.
And Unbreakable is one tasty, if less popular, apple. Janet poured herself into this project in a way she hadn’t since Damita Jo in 2004. The two intervening releases, 20 Y.O. and Discipline, were stifled a bit by her failure to own up to the seismic shift in her career that happened after the 2004 Super Bowl. It’s understandable that she wanted to move past it, but Janet albums are always confessional–we all knew it hurt her to be so unfairly targeted, and yet, the Janet that appeared on record ignored that it happened at all. Then, after her brother passed in 2009, I suspect that grief was too much for her to ignore. She took a break from recording at all for five years.
Unbreakable was Janet coming clean: “I lived through my mistakes/It’s just a part of growing/And never for a single moment/Did I ever go without your love,” she opens on the record’s title track, revealing more about her inner dialogue in ten seconds than she had in the previous decade. She spills her guts over the 17-track sprawl (with no interludes this time!) about her brother, her crush on her hubby, her Michael-like distrust of the media, her disillusionment with her own social idealism, and her spirituality, among other topics.
The album seems remarkably organic given this potential laundry listing of topics. It’s just like an old friend that you haven’t seen in years catching up with you about everything important they’ve been pondering and dealing with. She’d never waited as long as 15 years to tell us how she really feels, and she was just about to burst, it seems.
The musicality is just as exciting as ever. She’s certainly not trying to keep up with the current crop of chart-toppers, or straining to outdo them with innovation. The production matches the songs, and Janet’s multi-tracked harmonies are just as dreamy as you remember. The joy of reuniting with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who hadn’t worked with her for a whole album of material since 2001’s All For You, is palpable.
The most fun parts of the record, in fact, are the clever self-references. The instrumental track of “BURNITUP!” is nothing but a sped-up version of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” On “Dammn Baby,” Jan launches out of left field into the breakdown of “I Get Lonely,” and it works.
The most poignant lyrical moments, though, are the personal references in the two ballads that appear in the album’s second act.
[As a reference point for the non-fan, Janet always seemed more comfortable making veiled, coy, or fictionalized revelations in her songs. I mean, we all knew that her ex-husband Rene Elizondo was the “stupid bitch in my beach house” on “Son of a Gun,” but she paired that zinger with a sample from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” so that he couldn’t try to prove it without seeming like the jerk she was saying he was. Well played, Janet.]
On “Shoulda Known Better,” Janet directly name-checks “Rhythm Nation,” bitterly casting it off as a silly, idealized fantasy. It’s sort of like her brother breaking down and admitting that Billie Jean was in fact his lover. The line is devastating, though ultimately it’s reverse psychology–we know she wants to inspire us to prove her wrong.
On the following track, “After You Fall,” Janet gives perhaps the rawest, most personal vocal of her career. Though it’s couched in the indirect second-person, you can hear the pain and loneliness in her voice as you imagine the isolation she felt after her career was sabotaged in 2004, or as you imagine her sympathizing with what MJ dealt with in his agonized celebrity bubble.
Unbreakable is the Janet record we needed in 2015. It was epic, it was personal, it had Jimmy and Terry, and while reflective, it wasn’t the work of a lady in the twilight of her career–it was (and is) a vibrant piece of pop music.