Joan Jett may well be one of the most important women in the history of rock and roll. While this may romanticize the details, her breaking out after the dissipation of the Runaways to produce the Germs album and start the Blackhearts, experiencing commercial success on her own terms, makes her the Lucille Ball of punk rock and rock in general. Along the way, Jett proved that it was possible to have sex appeal while not being a teased, airbrushed and angel-voiced blonde, and also possible to have male fans who respected her musical ability.
In 2013, Jett maintains a highly public profile (you may see her in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, though apparently not on the South Dakota float…) and along with that comes her new album “Unvarnished.”
The title itself suggests a certain vulnerability and the subject of these songs expands on that promise. There is a maturity inherent in this new record, an honest and simple examination of the kind of emotions we all grudgingly experience. Is it any wonder that Jett, so long a pillar in an industry designed around youth, would write a song called “Hard to Grow Up”? The themes of loyalty and emotional imbalance may seem commonplace, but that hardly makes them invalid.
For “Unvarnished,” Jett’s iconic voice purrs along with its idiomatic warmth and down-to-earth tones. There is an instant infectiousness to the lead cut “Any Weather (606 Version)” as a result of lifelong familiarity with Joan Jett and what we’ve come to think of as her sound. For all the wonderful, amped-out, acquired taste heavy metal that constantly runs through my skull, I found myself humming this new Blackhearts tune while shaving after only having heard it once.
It’s all part of the dichotomy of “Unvarnished.” Musically it’s not edgy and there are parts that ring through with an almost Bangles-esque pop sensibility. There’s an identifiable hook and rallying point in nearly every cut, generally accompanied by a chorus like the one in “TMI,” designed to be chanted and remembered.
To that end, I wish that “Unvarnished” took a couple more risks. Joan Jett is well aware of her legacy and has a healthy respect for what got her where she is. This new album leans heavily on those factors, making a record that is a pleasant remembrance, but feels very safe. One can’t help but wonder what a musician as talented and influential and formerly rebellious as Jett could have conjured in 2013 if the issue has been pushed. Songs like “Reality Mentality,” capable and enjoyable for what they are, could have been modern rock classics with a little more amperage and a touch of ferocity.
Be that as it may, “Unvarnished” is still enjoyable and highly competent. It may not possess the assertiveness or attacking attitude of the Runaways or Jett’s early work, but it does prove that the timeless Joan Jett still has viability in 2013.