Bon Jovi have seen a million faces and rocked them all, but they've never impressed critics. What about now?
Here’s the good news for Bon Jovi: Their new album, What About Now, will debut at the top of Billboard’s album chart, their third straight studio record to hit Number One. The new record’s traction has been helped, in part, by the success of “Because We Can”, the big catchy lead single, the band’s most inescapable hit in at least a decade. Moreover, the band remains one of the world’s most profitable touring acts, showing no signs of slowing down and currently selling out arena stops on their current tour as fast as they did in 1987.
Despite such mammoth success, why is that Jon Bon Jovi feels so underappreciated? In some ways it is precisely due to such success. That is, What About Now would appear to be Jon asking if Bon Jovi will now finally get voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes, the band was snubbed again for the 2013 inductions, another sore thumb for Jon, who has been striving to be taken more seriously since about 1992, when he claimed that the Keep the Faith album was social commentary, a more serious, post-Nevermind turn from the pop-metal eighties.
But no one ever quite accepted Jon Bon Jovi as a writer of political music or as a serious musical spokesman for any social disease, not on Keep the Faith, not on 1995’s uncharacteristically dark slice-of-life set These Days, not on the post-9/11 anthems from Bounce, not in the workingman pleas from 2009’s The Circle. Jon refuses to give up, though, so now we have What About Now, the 12th Bon Jovi studio album, on which JBJ takes a few more stabs at populist commentary, once again backed by guitarist Richie Sambora (one of the most valuable wingmen in rock), keyboardist David Bryan, and drummer Tico Torres. (And for the love of god, Free Hugh McDonald! This guy has been playing bass for Bon Jovi ever since Alec John Such left over twenty years ago, and they still keep the poor bastard back in the shadows. They played American Idol the other night, and they made Hugh play from backstage. Note to Jon: You’re not the Rolling Stones, and even they wouldn't pull that kind of stunt.)
Fans and critics have always been quick to notice that the Bon Jovi’s attempts at being taken seriously or efforts to finally garner some critical acclaim -- another sore subject -- never really played to what made the band occasionally great. The band’s ultra-romantic, I’d-die-for-you, Jersey-kids-just-trying-to-make-it mythology is what turned the bright lights on them in the first place, and the stories of Tommy and Gina from “Livin’ on a Prayer” (revived in “99 in the Shade” and “It’s My Life”) and Danny and Bobby from “Blood on Blood” were prime aphrodisiac nostalgia, delivered by feathered and passionate Jersey-sound studbuckets, with guitars and keyboards and Aquanet all over the place. Nobody wanted Jon Bon Jovi to sing about social ills; they wanted him to tell us that love is a social disease. Foreign policy? Take me back to Tokyo Road. Healthcare debate? Your love is like bad medicine.
Bon Jovi were so perfect as the rowdy, open-hearted, pretty-but-Jersey-tuff rock-and-roll true believers that they owned a sizable chunk of the late eighties, dominating the MTV dial-in shows and spawning more imitators than the market could ultimately tolerate. The reason we shake our heads today in disbelief at the days of hair metal is that so many bands got signed in the wake of Slippery When Wet, all of them trying way too hard to add to the Bon Jovi template, that the whole thing eventually descended into ridiculous leather-and-lipstick-and-Flying-V parody. It was inevitable then that Bon Jovi would ease away from their own image, and since they could outplay and outsing the other bands in the phylum, they were able to achieve the longevity that has eluded every other Cinderella and White Lion of the day.
However, the move to “message songs” proved artistically tricky for the band, as Jon’s reach as a lyricist often extended his grasp. After all, Bon Jovi corners the market in two areas: supersized round-chorused pop-metal anthems (“You Give Love a Bad Name”, “Born to Be My Baby”) and soaring power ballads (“Never Say Goodbye”, “Bed of Roses”). If Bon Jovi didn’t invent these forms exactly, they perfected them during Reagan’s second term. Later on, any time the band attempted to get serious, with strident midtempo ninetiesguitars, the songwriting fell flat and dragged down albums like Have a Nice Day and Bounce. That’s quite a pickle for a band as talented and hard-working as Bon Jovi: evolution and stagnation are equally awkward.
So, despite consistent commercial success, Jon Bon Jovi has spent the last twenty years with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. No matter how hard the guy works at being a socially conscious, charity-show-playing, workmanlike, nice-guy musician, for many he will always be the dude who named his album 7800º Fahrenheit because that’s the melting point of rock. How defensive is JBJ over being critically slighted? He gave the band’s 2004 outtakes box-set the Elvis-nicking title 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong. It probably doesn’t help that Jon’s attempts to call explicit attention to his integrity probably does more harm than good, like pointing out in interviews that his songs contain “a lot of social commentary” or by referring to himself as a “singer/songwriter/philanthropist” in an Advil commercial.
In 2000, Bon Jovi recorded a sort of kiss-off song about perseverance and independence, seemingly in response to his critics. “It’s My Life”, the first single from Crush, was a surprise hit, and the band has leaned hard on that second-wind model ever since. Over the next decade, Jon Bon Jovi made sure everyone knew that he was one dude that was by god all about living his life. Jon sang, “I’m gonna live my life every day” (“Everyday”, 2002), “I ain’t gonna do what I don’t want to/I’m gonna live my life” (“Have a Nice Day”, 2005), and “This one’s about anyone who does it differently” (“We Weren’t Born to Follow”, 2009). The sameness of these singles was unmistakable, and Bon Jovi once again found themselves in a holding pattern without a fresh musical or lyrical direction to speak of.
They may not have been born to follow, but in 2007 the band did some following after all, to the only logical place for them in today’s scene: Nashville. Lost Highway found Bon Jovi joining the ranks of the most obvious inheritors of the sound that the band had forged in the eighties, the classic-rock sing-alongs and power ballads now formatted as the new country music. Bon Jovi, therefore, didn’t have to tweak their sound much for country radio but thereby produced some of their best songs in ages. “(You Want To) Make a Memory” and “Whole Lot of Leavin’” cut the self-help platitudes and headed straight into melodic meditations on love and heartbreak, sounding refreshingly authentic and earning some critical applause by not trying so damned hard to chase it.
So what about now? The new album splits the difference between their past triumphs and the band’s attempt to challenge itself. The results are as mixed as you would expect. “Because We Can” is the band’s biggest, glossiest, easiest fist-pumper in 25 years, complete with one of those whopping drums-and-vocals-only breakdowns that you thought died with Quiet Riot. The lyrics are still full of high-school-assembly self-empowerment prattle, which doesn’t matter when the chorus is this insanely catchy. The fun doesn’t last long, however: The bland “I’m With You” isn’t good enough to be included on the album at all, let alone be the second track. What About Now was produced by John Shanks, who also helmed the last three Bon Jovi records and has often pushed the band toward caustic, nondescript rock “edge”, and the worst songs here (“I’m With You”, “Pictures of You”, “Room at the End of the World”) are co-written by Shanks.
The album recovers with some reasonably solid Bon Jovi songs, including the title track, one of the songs that supposedly reveals Jon’s lefty political leanings (“Who stands for the restless and the lonely, for the desperate and the hungry?”), and “What’s Left of Me”, a fine rootsified strummer in “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” mode. The album’s best song is “That’s What the Water Made Me”, a chugging piece of quality pop, whatever the title means. The band also brings in hook-maestro Desmond Child -- one more time! - for “Army of One”, and, yes, it’s a rousing never-give-up arena rattler. The rest of the album’s second half falters again with glitzy, wonky tunes that fail to catch fire.
Many Bon Jovi fans make a beeline for the album’s big ballad, and the heart-shredding moment here comes with “Amen” (clearly influenced by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, part of the band’s live repertoire a while back). If nothing else, “Amen” shows off Jon’s still-impressive fifty-something pipes and, with its fingerpicked guitar and balletic chord progression, finds a way to successfully break the Bon Jovi mold. As does “The Fighter”, the album-closing acoustic ballad, the only song here written solely by Jon. It’s genuinely lovely, with close harmonies from Sambora, even if Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” is a bit too obvious of an inspiration. “I am a fighter / Though not a boxer by trade”, he sings, adding “On the New Jersey Turnpike / Counting the headlights”, lifting from Simon’s “America” to erase any doubts about what Jon has been listening to.
Speaking of those influences, “What About Now” also features a dramatic pre-chorus that repeats, “We’re alive!”, and if that refrain reminds you of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Are Alive” from last year’s Wrecking Ball, don’t act so surprised. Springsteen has, of course, long been the monkey on Jon Bon Jovi’s back. Without Bruce, it’s hard to imagine Bon Jovi in the first place, which just means that Bon Jovi will never shed the Bruce-lite label, and if JBJ’s efforts to be taken seriously have eluded him, Bruce’s huge shadow has much to do with it. Still, Jon has at times imitated Bruce so blatantly that Bon Jovi deserves some of the accusations of coattail-riding. Songs like “What’s Left of Me” sound conspicuously shaped by Wrecking Ball’s blue-collar anti-banker tunes, and when Jon sings “I’m a teacher, I’m a farmer, I’m a union man / It’s getting hard to make a living in this hard land”, the Bruce borrowing becomes more obvious. Never more so than on “Thick as Thieves”, where, true to the song’s title, Jon pilfers from “Nebraska”: If I robbed a bank you wouldn't care / You'd come sit on my lap in the electric chair / And when they flipped the switch, we'd just kiss”.
Overall, What About Now isn’t a consistently great record. Or even a consistently great Bon Jovi record. Such a qualifier is precisely the kind of backhand that Jon Bon Jovi probably hates most, still hoping that a Bon Jovi record still has a shot at making the major rock magazines’ year-end lists. If Wrecking Ball can top those lists, why not What About Now? he might ask. And perhaps he is underappreciated as a prolific writer, the leader of a band of fine musicians, a skilled vocalist, and a citizen of generosity and integrity. None of which changes the fact that What About Now mostly treads water. Still, it will certainly do to send the band back out to do what they have always done best -- play live -- and they’ll be able to bring new material to sold-out arenas and stadiums thirty years into their career, an accomplishment impossible to throw stones at. Now, what about 2014?