Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Unvarnished

Joan Jett may have a reputation, but it’s not necessarily for fashioning solid albums that maintain a consistent quality from side one needle drop to side two inner groove. In fact, aside from greatest hits packages, to my ears her best album is Flashback, a 1993 compilation of rare recordings that is simply killer (her original recording of the Arrows’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with the Sex Pistols, a version of “Cherry Bomb” done with L7, etc.) That Evil Stig album she did with surviving members of The Gits ain’t bad, either.  But it’s undeniable that she is a master of timeless singles, even if many of the songs with which she’s most closely identified were not even written by her.

The single from Unvarnished, Jett’s first album in seven years, is “Any Weather,” also the opening song. Co-written with Dave Grohl (who apparently plays most of the instruments on the album version), it’s a wham-bam burst of rock candy, jolting boldly into action like a pumped fist thrust high into the heavy, spinning atmosphere, sending winds into collision. Succinct, rowdy, catchy as all heck, punctuated with numerous sharp ‘n’ spirited “Hey!!”s and “Whoa-ohh-oh!”s, it’s a wonder of forward momentum that could’ve easily come out in ’83 or ’93 but sounded utterly perfect during the waning months of 2013. And it sounds perfect right now, here today, at this very moment. Joan sings here of friends, both fair-weather and true, a familiar subject for her. “You go along to get along/ That’s why I wrote this song/ I wanna say/ Can’t stand to live this way…” She sounds amazing – young, raw, sincere, still fueled by the dogged determination that has always marked her life and work. It ranks among the best songs she’s ever recorded, certainly at or near the top of those she’s had a hand in writing.

If it must be said that nothing that follows equals such pop-punk perfection, there are, however, generous rewards to be discovered, and rediscovered, on Unvarnished. In fact, start-to-finish, I’d venture that this is the sturdiest album the Blackhearts (whose lineup has become so fluid as to be irrelevant, although drummer Thommy Price has been with her since the mid-‘80s, and her omnipresent manager Kenny Laguna remains a collaborator) have ever crafted.

Although Jett’s long demonstrated flawless taste in covering the songs of others, Unvarnished is an all-original affair, one of a mere handful in her catalog. She takes ruthless aim at our rotting culture in a couple of the most successful tracks. “TMI” is a pointed indictment of the overexposure epidemic in the worldwide cry for attention that is social media, while “Reality Mentality” derides the exaggerated quarrels, petty hyperdrama and lowest common denominator mindset of unreality TV and the loathsome instant celebrities it carelessly breeds. But I find myself partial to the more personal observations revealed herein. With its steady, repeating upward chord progression, as reliable as the movement of time itself, “Hard to Grow Up” accurately reflects the bewilderment of loss and helplessness those of us of her rock ‘n’ roll generation are now mutually experiencing after so many years living large, not wanting to believe it would happen to us. “I wake up feelin’ crazy/ Keep losin’ people, just lost my mom,” she confesses. “Playing hard has always been my way/ Now many things are changin’…Now my life is much more than a game.” Better still is “Fragile,” which, funnily enough considering its title and subject matter, is significantly meatier, musically, even with its string section accents. “I’m at the point in life now I think about my own mortality, and how it all works out/ I did the best I could, but is that a bluff?/ I see myself and wonder, was I good enough?”

Despite all of this self-evaluation and sobering acknowledgement of aging, there remains a certain nostalgic simplicity and restless rebelliousness to Jett’s songs. They still sound like high school hallway anthems, and honest ones at that. At once subversive and all-American, retro and timeless, Joan Jett reminds me once again why I still love rock ‘n’ roll. This is one damned fine album.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts