Janet Jackson, "Unbreakable" (BMG)
Meet a sweeter, more chaste Jackson. Her first album in seven years arrives after two major events: the 2009 death of her brother Michael and her 2012 marriage to a Qatari businessman, Wissam Al Mana. Through 17 songs, Jackson sings about love, loyalty and compassion, and about memories as well as anticipation. The word "sex" never appears in the lyrics.
Jackson, 49, is returning at a pop moment she has fomented since the mid-1980s. Working into the early 2000s with the producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who rejoin her on "Unbreakable," she concocted crisp keyboard funk, smiley pop and deep-pillow ballads; her songs promised autonomy, idealism, girlish fun and unabashed carnal delights. Beyoncé's phalanx of feminist dancers and Janelle Monáe's sci-fi swing are updates of "Rhythm Nation"; the whispery, slow-motion enticements of FKA twigs extrapolate from albums like "The Velvet Rope."
Jackson hasn't come back to challenge her students for her old turf. She tried that on "Discipline" in 2008, working with producers who flaunted up-to-the-minute effects and concentrating on seduction. That version of Jackson appears only in "No Sleeep," a sultry slow vamp with her cooing and whispering to an absent lover that their reunion will be "48 hours of love." It's a reticent, PG-rated version of the far more explicit ways Jackson used to tease.
For most of "Unbreakable," she plays big sister — someone who's happily in love, willing to offer advice and wishing for a better world. It's a benign role but a modest one, reinforced by the music. Jam and Lewis, who have needed Jackson to make their best music, are careful not to upstage her here. On this album, their most striking song is the most restrained: "After You Fall," a touching ballad that promises unwavering devotion, with a long stretch of only piano and voice. Elsewhere, the productions provide lushness, clarity and some sly reminders of sounds from Jackson's old hits. "Gon' B Alright" looks back further, fusing Smokey Robinson's Motown with Sly and the Family Stone for the album's closing burst of hope.
A few tracks reach cautiously toward the contemporary, with hints of trap bass and percussion in "Dammn Baby" and a four-on-the-floor chorus in an oddly melancholy save-the-world song, "Shoulda Known Better." The title song of "Unbreakable" loops a sweet-soul sample through the verses like an early Kanye West production. But the melodies lack the invincible catchiness of Jackson's best songs.
Experiments — and better tunes — are tucked away in the second half of the album. "Black Eagle" is a two-part song that sets its mysticism and self-help to modal phrases and quiet finger snaps. "Take Me Away" laces together plinking minimalist marimbas and gleaming Fleetwood Mac guitars in a plea for escape that's both wishful and optimistic. And "Lessons Learned" builds a folky refuge in a song about an abused, co-dependent woman.
The tribute to Michael Jackson turns out to be unexpectedly upbeat. With breezy vocal harmonies, "Broken Hearts Heal" reminisces about a childhood full of singing and laughing together. "I miss you much," Jackson sings, echoing one of her hits. Then the chorus determinedly looks forward from where she stands now: "Our love ain't no material thing/Inshallah see you in the next life." "Inshallah" means "God willing."
Jon Pareles, New York Times