It’s been a week since we were graced with Janet’s latest piece of art – Unbreakable. Barely a bad word has been spoken about the album which is clearly a gear shift and key change from her previous few albums.
I wanted to take time to immerse myself in the album fully before I posted my own review of the work. Indeed, on first listen I was so overwhelmed by the sound I was experiencing and the multi-layering of instrument upon instrument and vocal upon vocal that I was unable to process what I was hearing. My immediate reaction was to wince at it all. Granted, I was giving it my first listen at 2am in the morning after a late night flight and driving home from the airport exhausted while my housemate Sam was having an asthma attack next to me so I wasn’t exactly best placed to make a sober judgement about the album.
Thankfully a new day came and a second listen almost instantly turned my wincing into a new level of emotion and one which realised the profound nature of what I had in my CD player. The tiredness and the sheer emotion felt on listening to a new Janet album had been all too much for a weary Darren, exacerbated by the fact that the past few months I’ve been going through some deep personal turmoil in the shape of a breakup from a man I thought I’d be spending my future with.
Before the album was even released I knew that there would be tracks on it that would cut deep based on my present emotional state of mind. Indeed, even sitting here writing this, I can hear in my head the delicate tones of Janet’s words on After You Fall. It’s a song that I’ve cried to several times, including once spontaneously whilst working out and lifting weights on my living room floor. Quite a sight, trust me!
The thing we all know about J is that her lyrics are so deep but so applicable to many life situations. She’s likely talking about the death of her brother Michael, whilst I’m relating it directly to my own personal situation.
Those who don’t know Janet’s works well will dismiss her work as light and upbeat. Indeed most non fans don’t even realise the real meaning behind Together Again. But for those of us who have grown up on weekly doses of The Velvet Rope to help us understand the things that life throws at us, we know that the layers behind Janet’s messages don’t just get penned on paper in seconds. In fact they develop over years and that’s why it’s taken seven years – arguably 17 years since Rope (perhaps with the exception of Better Days) – for us to get to this depth again with Janet.
Much has been written about Unbreakable from a critic’s perspective. I have read little from a fan’s perspective on the personal impact it has had on people. Much has been said about The Great Forever being an anthem for LGBT people to give them the strength to live their lives authentically. Indeed, in my last blog, I talked about a book called The Velvet Rage I recently discovered (named after Rope) which examines that very idea of authentic living. I’m not sure Janet necessarily wrote the song with that specific purpose in mind, but the beauty again of her lyrics is that she never needs to clarify exactly what a song is about because it reaches and permeates so many different situations and people. What on the surface is a dig at critics questioning Janet’s life choices reaches new levels when you apply a filter of the LGBT community – and rightly so.
Shoulda Known Better – a track about the fact that Janet hoped for more from her Rhythm Nation album and its socially conscious messages – speaks to me on that initial level but then I apply the idea that plenty of situations in life will find you making decisions when you know that they aren’t necessarily the right ones for you and that your subconscious probably knew all along that that was the case.
As the album moves to After You Fall – I’ve just put it on as I can rarely listen to it without getting too emotional – Janet takes us on a deeply personal journey through darker aspects of life. In this day and age of instant gratification and barely having time to remember your own name with the proliferation of technology, it’s easy to forget and paper over heartache and pain. It’s easy to never reach that level with interpersonal relationships, whether they be romantic or not, where you open yourself up to others in an authentic way. And then, when you do and it doesn’t go the way you were hoping, the fall is inevitably that bit more painful. Perhaps that’s why in the modern world we live in people don’t have time to take stock and appreciate the depth of songs like this.
I know that it’s taken me 17 years of listening to The Velvet Rope to finally face up to some of the messages on there. Indeed, I’m approaching 30 myself now and that was the age that Janet would have written the album at. Perhaps that’s why I’m seeing even deeper meaning in songs like Special, You and Velvet Rope now than I ever have before.
When Janet says the words: “Who’s gonna care for you after you fall? Who’s gonna be there after you fall? I will“, she’s not telling us that she will literally be there to pick up the pieces. But she’s telling us to give her music a listen and to use it as a framework to take a step outside the frantic lives we lead and to find catharsis and solace in it.
In Broken Hearts Heal, Janet is singing of the loss of Michael and even caused one critic to describe it as an even better track than Together Again in terms of its content. Night takes us on a journey to remember the experience of new love and how “darkness starts to fade”. Indeed you could listen to After You Fall, Broken Hearts Heal and Night and relate them directly to a breakup if you wanted and indeed Janet is clearly giving us a journey through the loss of Michael and onto new love with now husband Wissam.
My own least favourite track on the album – yes we’re all allowed one, but only one – is Dream Maker / Euphoria. Not that the lyrics don’t speak volumes, but the melody and production take me back to sounding like something off 20 Y.O.
So let’s move on from that quickly and onto the brilliant 2 B Loved. And my word don’t we all “want to be needed” and doesn’t “everybody needs to feel love”. And haven’t we all felt deleted “cos you lost your love”. For me Janet reminding her lover that she’s not perfect but she’s perfect for them speaks volumes. Anyone looking for perfection in life will soon come unstuck and whilst settling for something adequate is not the track, realising when you’re onto a good thing is equally important.
Take Me Away continues the theme for me of finding that euphoric love. A love with which you can escape all your problems with that one person to “somewhere the air is clear”. Janet wants to “go somewhere the love has no fear”. We’ve all been in relationships where you feel on edge, uncertainty or scepticism but with this song Janet is telling us to find that love that doesn’t leave you fearful – and in this instance I don’t mean fearful in the sense of Lessons Learned and its domestic violence themes.
Again though, in Lessons Learned whilst few of us will have experienced domestic violence Janet speaks to us on a number of levels. Apply the matrix of a past (or existing) relationship where you’ve ended up going round and round in circles and apology after apology results in you still going back. “Codependent lover that’s her tune, For now his song plays on, Will you play yours too, It goes on and on and on, Is it cool?”
I’ve seen much written by fans about Black Eagle and how it relates directly to racism experienced by black men. Again the beauty of the track is that it was likely written along those lines but as a white man it speaks an entirely different message to me: “Once you know, you can’t not know”. You can’t go back from things you know, but that doesn’t mean that you need to dwell on them. “Just remember when you’re overwhelmed, dream and take some time to love yourself, believe you’re free to do whatever you want”. A bit of self love can get us all a long way.
In fact a bit of research I did and wrote about on Twitter earlier this week questioned what “No more Room No 4” was that Janet refers to in the track. Well Room No 4 is in fact is an interrogation room in the Russian Compound – the main Israeli police office in Jerusalem – where Palestinian Jerusalem residents, including children, are investigated. We all know that Janet and Wissam visited the region recently and so in fact the track is likely written about the victims and refugees from conflicts.
I found great solace in Well Traveled when Janet sings that her bucket list contains destinations she’s never been to but that she has “Gotta keep movin’, Until I’m gonna find the place, I never wanna arrive, Cause if I ever reach there, There’s no place left to go”. Life should never leave you feeling like there’s nothing left in it. There are multiple challenges, experiences and shenanigans to experience. So keep on travelling.
And for its final hoorah on Gon’ B Alright Janet tells us to embrace love. In all its forms. “Put a little love into everything you do”, she croons. See the positive in it all and become a little more mindful in the energy we put out into the universe and guess what JanFam, it’ll come right back at you. Who’s with me?
Please feel free to comment and leave your thoughts below.
Darren Burn is the founder of Janet Love and OutOfOffice.com and lives in the UK.