"Wake up everybody," raps Jon Bon Jovi at the start of this album appropriately for material that hit the shelves right before the US election. It's a very topical album lyrically, and the message, tellingly, is a mixed one.
Some of this is notably pessimistic in outlook, with songs about the what we're reading in the news or perhaps experiencing ourselves, subjects such as George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement; mass shootings in schools and authoritianism; migrants receiving inhumane treatment. "America's on fire," begins American Reckoning as a sort of anti-state of the union address. "Her conscience has been looted and her soul is under siege." There's even a COVID-19 song, as is perhaps de rigeur now.
Yet, other songs are clearly positive in outlook. "Life is limitless" is the mantra of the opening song. That COVID song tells us that, "What this world needs a hug," which is an awkward idea in this era of social distancing but I get the feeling. Old rockers often explore no end of lyrical territory but come back in the end to the oldest of all themes. "There's nothing but love," he sings on Story of Love.
Some of this is perhaps inevitable for Bon Jovi, which feels like a solo record even with Tico Torres on drums and David Bryan on keyboards. In fact, I'm rather shocked to see that there have only been two line-up changes in the band's entire history. But this is all about the words, with the music clearly the emotional underpinning. It's good music, but it's not music that would particularly work if the vocal track were to be stripped away from it. Phil X does introduce a few riffs to make his presence known, but I felt they weren't really Bon Jovi riffs, more old sounds repurposed for new songs.
That was something I couldn't avoid here. When I discovered rock music by accidentally tuning into a Friday Rock Show in 1984, my next step was to pick up a copy of Kerrang! and my first had a photo of Jon Bon Jovi on its cover. I was a little too late to hear the debut when it came out but I was there for the build to 7800° Fahrenheit's release and caught up pretty quickly. Back then, we fairly saw them as part of the hair metal scene, not as sleazy as Mötley Crüe or as heavy as Quiet Riot but similar. While I've reviewed a number of new albums by hair metal bands that still fit into that scene, this isn't one.
Perhaps we figured it out by the time New Jersey came out. Jon Bon Jovi always wanted to be a Bruce Springsteen rather than a Dave Lee Roth and hindsight only underlines that. He's all over this album, because Do What You Can and Let It Rain are clearly written in the Springsteen style. However, he's an influence here, not the only one. Beautiful Drug sounds like a Tom Petty song. Blood on the Water is a Dire Straits song until it morphs into a Springsteen social justice piece. That the next song is called Brothers in Arms is just irony; it isn't that Brother in Arms.
Lower the Flag goes even further back, as a protest song complete with a narrated rollcall of American atrocities. Jon Bon Jovi's voice moves closer to Bob Dylan's with every release and Lower the Flag has a lineage going back through Dylan to Woody Guthrie and beyond. Of course, it has Springsteen in it too, because we're never too far away from the Boss on this album. I'd suggest that the longer Richie Sambora remains out of the band (and there's no indication he'll ever return), the more the band that remains will move towards a Springsteen sound.
I'm not sure how deliberate all that is. The only deliberate song here, from a musical standpoint, may be Do What You Can, because it's not just a Springsteen song, it's also a country rock anthem. It talks about politics, getting right into all the problems manifest in this country right now. It doesn't state that it's all Trump's fault, but that name sits behind these lyrics like a giant flag. This song knows it's his watch. And yet the song unfolds in the most traditionally Republican musical language out there right now. That's neat irony.
I have to say that I haven't paid much attention to Bon Jovi of late, but I'm surprised at how long it's been for me. Like many, I probably drifted away after Keep the Faith, because the band's sound wasn't staying static, but ought to have drifted back a lot sooner, realising that sounds shouldn't stay static. I have heard snippets since, odd songs here and there, but I think my brain probably still thinks that Jon Bon Jovi is a solo artist. This doesn't do much to change that.
They've stayed active over the years, their prior album only four years old. I liked this a lot more than I expected to, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to want to work backwards to see if the last half dozen albums I might not have heard anything from are actually worth listening to. Let's just say that I'm a lot more open to the next one. There's a lot of good material here.