CD Review: Bon Jovi – What about Now

CD Review: Bon Jovi – What about Now
All Access Review: C

Bon Jovi - What about Now
To some extent, Bon Jovi has always lived in Bruce Springsteen’s shadow, except perhaps when it comes to album sales. Springsteen gets all the critical acclaim, while still managing to sell loads of records. Springsteen has been called the “new Bob Dylan. He’s New Jersey’s favorite son, the voice of the common man, an honest-to-goodness poet who can, in gritty, powerful language, pen a tense murder ballad or capture the heartbreaking emotions stirred by a factory closing in a rust-belt town.

Bon Jovi, on the other hand, would be the answer to this bathroom-wall, fill-in-the-blank sentence, “For a good time, call _____.” That’s not exactly fair, but with Jon’s good looks, his band’s hair-metal past and little in the way of literary ambition, Bon Jovi has found themselves in the cross hairs of “serious” music critics for years, these pale shut-ins having unloaded a steady barrage of stinging barbs in their direction that has continued unabated. But, really, is there that big a difference between Springsteen’s “Rosalita (Come out Tonight)” and “Livin’ On a Prayer? Unabashedly romantic and exuberant, these escapist, all-we-have-is-each-other anthems about young love and breaking free of impoverished circumstances by getting out of Dodge are life-affirming sing-a-longs, with great big hooks and the kind of blind optimism that destroys dreamers.

So why is Bon Jovi targeted for abuse, while Springsteen has been elevated to sainthood? Indulging in easy platitudes has never helped him gain favor with music scribes, but it’s probably more because of albums like What about Now, which finds the entire band sliding into adult-contemporary blandness and spouting artless clichés, such as, “If you want to start a fire, it only takes a spark,” from the overly earnest title track. His heart in the right place, Bon Jovi has never played it safer musically or lyrically, standing up for the hungry, the restless and those who are down for the count in what amounts to an inspirational sermon of a title track, throwing his support behind the faithful and the teachers, and anybody else who needs the healing power of Bon Jovi to walk again.

On this newest record of bighearted anthems and simple sincerity, Bon Jovi almost begs for artistic credibility and then abandons the pretense in tracks like “Army of One,” where undying solidarity is pledged for the troops and Bon Jovi repeats the words “never give up” over and over again – both fine sentiments, but ones also voiced at every sporting event held in America. Yes, it’s gratifying seeing Bon Jovi develop a social consciousness, but every song on What about Now seems to have a tear-jerking “Oprah” moment, and after song after song of this, the LP loses its ability to be affecting in any way. There’s less insipid socio-political commentary on local TV morning shows. Say what you will about the pop-metal superficiality of Slippery When Wet, but it was never a crashing bore like What about Now, a record that is only happy to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders, even as the air just seems to go out of the deflated “I’m With You” and “Amen.”

And there are not-so-subtle sonic deviations, too, as Bon Jovi’s sound has come to resemble U2 more than say Poison, with heady, starry-eyed tracks like “Room at the End of the World” and “That’s What the Water Made Me” aiming for the glorious heavens of chiming guitars that Bono and The Edge see when their rockets’ red glare spreads across a night sky. And then there’s the Heartland folk and rather likable, dog-eared country of their beguiling Lost Highway record of 2007 that manifests itself in the sobering, underdog drama of this record’s “The Fighter” – so quiet and genteel, but pretty, nonetheless, with its well-arranged mix of strings and horns – off their latest LP.  

Where’s the fun? Where are the wild hearts and sly grins of their youth? Has maturity sapped these cheery rogues of their ability to raise a little PG-13 hell? Jon Bon Jovi is far more serious and concerned about what’s going on his America than ever, living in hope while offering a helping hand to the downtrodden in the uplifting “Because We Can” or holding onto what’s good in an otherwise nasty, brutish life as the rushing melodic flood and the twinkling golden guitars of “Beautiful World” crash over the levees. These are stirring pop songs, played with panache, especially with the all-too-infrequent guitar supernovas of Richie Sambora – seemingly on the outs now with the group – blowing up here and there. And “Pictures of You” is a charming, sincere ode to true love, while “What’s Left of Me” is a rousing piece of faded Americana.

Does Bon Jovi deserve more credit for growing up a little? Is it too cynical to question Bon Jovi’s motives on What about Now? Probably, but in this era where taking issue with any of the causes Bon Jovi advances here would be tantamount to treason, it’s not such a bad thing to ask critically if they have gone a bit overboard in trying to save the world on What about Now
   Peter Lindblad 

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