"Discipline" (Island Def Jam)
* * * Everybody knows Janet Jackson likes her fantasies. The whisper-voiced star has been purveying elegant soft-core for half of her two decades in the musical spotlight, transforming herself into pop's equivalent of Anais Nin. (It's fun to think that Madonna gave up smut for spirituality, in part, because she realized Janet had claimed the corner on being nasty.) That Miss Jackson continues to explore subjects like bondage and autoeroticism should disappoint no one; to ask her to cease is like asking Bruce Springsteen to stop writing about girls in their summer clothes.
The alternately laser-focused and meandering "Discipline" (being released Tuesday) raises a more valid question: For whom are these fantasies intended? Its 22 tracks should be two albums: The first, a club-directed missile helmed by "Darkchild" Rodney Jerkins and Jackson's beau, Jermaine Dupri, could reassert Jackson's primacy among glamazon hit-makers; the second, a bedroom-bound ladies' favorite coauthored by soul dauphin Ne-Yo, would remind fans of Jackson's gift for creating truly tender smut.
"Discipline" tries to service both Tyler Perry-loving moms and their gone-wild progeny, sacrificing Jackson's own vision in the process. A mean-spirited sense of entitlement permeates the up-tempo troika "Feedback," "Luv" and "So Much Betta"; these songs grab the essence of previous hits by Britney Spears, T-Pain and Kanye West (sampling Daft Punk, no less) without so much as a patent application. The overheated production makes them stand out, but they're heartless. Jackson's nearly anonymous vocals lack the self-possession and joy that made hits such as "Control" and "Together Again" indelible.
Jackson's personality resurfaces when she slows down to contemplate the effect of her adventuresome ways. "Greatest X," co-written by The-Dream, moves gently on a heartbeat and a finger snap and lets Janet revel in her genius for undersigning -- a style she pioneered in R&B, and for which she doesn't get enough credit. And "Can't B Good," a waterfall of mixed emotions enfolding a sunlit morning-after, is the most emotionally vulnerable ballad Jackson's recorded in years.
A couple of songs on "Discipline" are in their own category. The title track is an ode to masochism that, like the cover photograph of Jackson in bondage wear, simply goes too far for the average consumer of Lindsay Lohan nudie shots. Jackson should have learned after 2004's "Damita Jo" that her attempts to make explicitness elegant won't fly with a general public that loves freak dancing but still wonders about sex education in high school. The sincerity that can be felt on this track won't make anyone more comfortable with it.
"Rock With U" is also extra personal but not in the usual Janet way. The song pays homage to her beloved brother Michael's glimmering early hit of the same name without directly sampling it. Instead, the co-writers -- Ne-Yo, Dupri and Atlanta house-music producer Eric Stamile -- create a sonic meditation on what Michael (and Janet, and all of us) have lost since those sweet last days of disco.
Building on the original's bed of synthesized chord changes, Team Janet layers in swirling keyboards, vocoder whispers and the singer's own distended murmurs; the effect is the gentlest time travel ever accomplished. The song's opening line, "Strobe lights make everything sexier," seems ridiculous -- until you remember the rainbow strobes that made Michael seem like a glitter angel in that image-defining video.
Playing on memory and melancholia, Janet's "Rock With U" is nowhere as great as the original, but as a bit of intimate meta-pop it's utterly poignant. Jackson has long been the bearer of her brother's secrets, and on this song she shows that she can still crave something other than sexual fulfillment. Something like innocence. Next time, she should share more of her fantasies about that.
-- Ann Powers
Brit duo walk on the mellow side
"Seventh Tree" (Mute)
* * *
On its fourth studio disc, this English electro-pop duo takes a deliberate step away from the cheeky disco-glam jams of 2005's "Supernature" toward a mellower, more delicate brand of postmodern mood music.
Fans of Beth Orton and the French group Air will find much to swoon to throughout "Seventh Tree," which is as much a showcase for Alison Goldfrapp's haunted-diva vocals as for multi-instrumentalist Will Gregory's luscious sound design. Creepy and lovely in equal measure.
-- Mikael Wood
Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.