Janet Jackson addresses her absence on the languid title track of her first album in seven years, intoning at the song’s end: “Hello, it’s been a while. Lots to talk about. I’m glad you’re still here. I hope you enjoy.”
What’s been on Jackson’s mind since 2008’s middling “Discipline”? Pretty much what’s been on her mind since the start of her career: love — sharing it, losing it, protecting it, reveling in it, spreading it for the greater good, and translating it into a vocabulary that works both on the dance floor and in the bedroom.
Produced by longtime cohorts Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, “Unbreakable” is heavy at 17 tracks, and doesn’t catch as many memorable melodies as Jackson's best past work (“Control,” “Rhythm Nation 1814,” “Janet,” All for You”). Instead, it relies, as much of her new millennium output has, on rhythm and vibe. But “Unbreakable” is much closer in sound and spirit to her peak self, and her most solid release in years.
The “A Side” — Jackson quaintly announces “side one” and “side two,” complete with vinyl crackling — slides from the sweet if melodically elusive “Unbreakable 1” into the irresistible club fire of the appropriately exclamatory “BURNITUP!” (featuring Missy Elliott) and the vampy groove of “Dammn Baby.” She offers up the album’s best vocals on the defiant “The Great Forever,” which takes on critics, a favorite pop-star target (and a recurring theme for the Jacksons in particular). Whether directed toward the media, the public, or perhaps even members of her family, Jackson unequivocally states over a funky, fuzzy, swaggering groove, “It might sound strange to you, but what you think, it don’t mean nothing at all. It doesn’t change who I am.”
About halfway through the tracks, however, a kind of “vibe fatigue” sets in as the cumulative effect of all the heavy-lidded mood flourishes — trickling water, rainstorms, droning keyboard washes, meandering tunes — bogs down the proceedings in a series of heartfelt but less compelling ballads.
Fortunately, the latter half of the album has some welcome bright spots. “2 B Loved” encapsulates everything great about Jackson in just under three minutes, a burst of sunshiny pop froth complete with hand claps, a hip-shaking groove, and a rapturous celebration of the power of love. Jackson closes the proceedings with the jubilant, soulful, horn-flecked, full-blown Sly and the Family Stone-style exhortation of “Gon’ Be Alright,” and it feels like, for Jackson, it will be.
ESSENTIAL “2 B Loved”
Janet Jackson performs at TD Garden on Feb. 26.