If Joan Jett is a pop culture icon -- that much, by now, is undeniable -- she’s spent the past couple of years reveling in it. She’s been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, in 2011 and 2012, and although neither went through, saying she’s wildly influential is nevertheless as obvious as saying she’s known to wear black. And, despite her lengthy career, Jett is far from finished -- as her newest album, Unvarnished, makes abundantly clear.
Jett helped lay groundwork for acts from buzzy indie -- this month alone, Haim and Swearin’ -- to radio rock, where even with today’s comparatively eclectic programming an act like Dead Sara can prosper, to the defiant mainstream: Disney rockers Cherri Bomb, named for a Runaways song. (Speaking of the mainstream: the Joan Jett cover is in the pop star textbook right next to the R&B turn -- and if you fault their judgment, look at the Most-Played list at your local karaoke place. Stars -- they’re just like you.)
Seminal band the Runaways got an equally seminal biography this year -- "Queens of Noise: the Real Story of the Runaways" -- that’s part guitar superhero origin story. (“People always think of Joan Jett as being born in black leather, but [McDonnell] points out she was a kid with frosted hair. Joan… just seemed to become more herself,” wrote Jeanne Fury in an interview with McDonnell for Maura Magazine.) Dakota Fanning has played her in a movie. She’s played herself in a movie: Darren Lynn Bousman’s gonzo "Repo!", where she drops in during one of the rebellious numbers like some descending avatar of rock.
What there hasn’t been, so much, is new music; 2006’s Sinner was mostly a re-release of 2004’s Naked, released after a 10-year gap in Japan only -- the sort of release that to Stateside audiences and canonizers is akin to slinking away into obscurity. (It’s not a diss -- Japan’s market is huge, has been for decades, and has gotten increased interest lately -- but tends to correlate with lack of promotion and coverage elsewhere. It’s impervious to trends, too; for all this year’s swooning over ‘00s R&B, several of the hitmakers 2013’s lithe-voiced singers resemble most, like Ashanti and Mya, have both gone to Japan-only releases either temporarily or permanently.)
Unvarnished, Jett’s latest, is thus her first completely new album in nine years, yet it’s been met with comparatively little fanfare save a few interviews in Billboard and Rolling Stone. It’s tempting to suspect sexism -- Jett is 55, but 55-year-old classic rock icons have been known to be worshiped as weathered voices of a generation -- but the hype cycle is as much to blame. There's also the fact that Jett, at this stage of her career, is mainly interested in making unpretentious, crowd-pleasing rockers, without the varnish of tie-ins and concepts. These albums tend to fall by the wayside, but there are a lot of them. The answer to “Where are they now?” when it isn’t “They broke up,” tends more often than you’d think to be “Still making albums, still pretty good.”
Unvarnished is still pretty good. The snarl in Jett’s voice has mellowed a bit, but her band hasn’t; save a few flourishes with strings, it’s the kind of meat-and-potatoes rock that betrays no release date, chases no trend. There’s not another “Bad Reputation” here, but there’s plenty that’s just as ebullient, often love songs: “Any Weather,” recorded with Dave Grohl, or the scrappier “Bad As We Can Be” (“I’m no good for you and you’re no good for me, so let’s be as bad as we can be”) that could come from any pop-punk up-and-comer -- in the best way. But more often than not, like one-time collaborator Kathleen Hanna on this year’s The Julie Ruin, much of Unvarnished plays the voice of experience: autobiographical, wry.
“Hard to Grow Up” has the title of a quarterlife crisis, but the conceit is flipped; in the track, Jett is actually grown up (in this case, having faced the deaths of her parents) and deems it hard. “Fragile” looks at mortality even more dead-on, and what comes off as cheesy on paper -- the title’s spelled at one point -- is rendered through the creases in Jett’s voice devastatingly real. The personal can get topical, for better and worse. Jett’s experience with Hurricane Sandy makes “Make It Back” an anthem with a point, and “Different” has a lived-in, no-fucks-given swagger that’s a hell of a lot more convincing than the freak-baiting singles that at one point seemed to be mandatory for any artist worth their fans.
But Unvarnished’s weaker tracks are topical too, the ones that always tend to be weaker on this sort of album: the pop-culture salvos, songwriting versions of op-eds or particularly long Internet comments. Here, they’re “Reality Mentality,” whose contrarian stance is that reality TV is shallow, or “TMI,” which rides a flashy Gary Glitter stomp, but which would probably tsk-tsk at Glitter were he there; the analog-to-digital scolding (“You set boundaries where? You don’t mind being bare… You don’t want any sense of privacy, don’t care about your dignity”) could be another entry in the week’s list of open letters to open letters to oversharers -- just with riffs.
But if anyone’s earned such a statement, Jett has -- notoriously cagey about her personal life, even when the Runaways got as much prurient prying from the tabs and moralists as anyone -- and she still sounds invigorated doing it. It’s perhaps an easy comparison, but what Unvarnished reminds me more than anything of is Transmiticate, released in 2008 by L7’s Donita Sparks and her band the Stellar Moments (since disbanded) to zero fanfare whatsoever. The album is pleasantly diverse; for every raucous rocker -- and there are plenty -- there’s a heartbroken girl-group ballad like “Creampuff,” or an assured breather like single “He’s Got the Honey,” which rests on the sort of earnestness it’s hard to imagine in the ironic 2000s: “He’s got the honey for all of us bees / but I think kindness is his best quality.” Like the best tracks of Unvarnished, they’re not out to make new fans -- though they absolutely could, given the right release -- but make confident victory laps.
Sometimes artists release comeback albums because they need them, to capitalize on buzz or scrounge for some more. Unvarnished isn’t one of those. Jett’s legacy didn’t need it, but earned it.
Unvarnished is out now on Blackheart Records Group.