Since losing the sparkly production, songwriting and guitar talents of Richie Sambora in 2013, each Bon Jovi LP has been something of a more somber, black-and-white affair than that which came before it. That doesn’t mean singer-lyricist Jon Bon Jovi doesn’t still knowshis way around a shiny hook, a scarf-waving anthem, a musky vocal and a cocksure way with twisting cliché into parable. Take, for example, a new Bon Jovi track such as “Limitless,” and how it starts with crisp ringing guitars, boys singing whoa-oh-ohs in the background, and a platitudinal message claiming all that’s good in life is worth the risk, no matter how formidable the peril. That’s a typical Bon Jovi trope.
But ever since 2002’s “Bounce” (a reaction to the 9/11 attacks, and a salute to New York resilience) and 2005’s “Have a Nice Day” (a plea for tolerance of all stripes), JBJ’s inclination toward sad-to-say/hard-to-fix social issues meant that his namesake band had little need for glam-slamming or overly opulent musicality. Who says you can’t go home? Obviously, Bon Jovi, since issues like homelessness and images of the disenfranchised have, incrementally with each new record since 2013, removed all fat and luxuriousness from their melodies or arrangements.
Bon Jovi isn’t exactly presenting skeletal folk, either, but its new album, “2020,” is hardly the slick, bloated, fist-pumping rock of 1981’s “Runaway” and other tracks from their youthful hair-metal days. Maybe it’s time we let Bon Jovi grow up. Jon Bon Jovi certainly has.
The sound of colorful parties and frat-rock now over, what’s left is the ups and downs — mostly downs — of “2020.” on Bon Jovi looks at the world around him in turmoil, and rather than see a glass half full, finds a rotted and empty vessel in need of replenishing and reimagining, with some kindness and good thrown into the cup for kind measure. Discussed in an oddly plainspoken lyrical language, and in a voice deeper and craggier than expected, “2020” is corny in spots — really corny at times — but, manages to convey a series of deeply emotional messages about the state of what and who we are: in his view, a bunch of racist (“American Reckoning”) xenophobes (“Blood in the Water”) who expect men to die in service of this country, without giving them their due, or our respect (“Unbroken”).
Not artful enough to be poetry, and not journalistic enough to be documentary, “2020” is Jon Bon Jovi – for better and worse – looking at the currency of what is with a bold face and an open heart. It is an unromantic brand of rock reportage from a guy who knows he has big money and white privilege, and says as much during the George Floyd killing-inspired “American Reckoning,” with the lyric “I’ll never know what it’s like to walk a mile in his shoes.”
“2020” is definitely starker than what we’ve come to expect from Bon Jovi. Then again, is such plain speaking so different than, say, JBJ’s Jersey brethren, Bruce Springsteen, and his current obsession with measuring brother and sisterhood in the ghosts we recall?
Let’s get past the mawkish stuff.
There’s a scuffed-up twang to Bon Jovi’s voice on the COVID-19 rager “Do What You Can,” that we recognize, happily, from Jon’s platinum-plated, country-cousin duet with Jennifer Nettles, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” There’s a better, more energized single version of “Do What You Can” out now featuring the Sugarland lady’s warbling lead vocals, as co-lead and in lustrous harmony with Bon Jovi. On the album version, JBJ’s vocal cuts through the heartland Celtic C&W nicely — awkward, helpful pragmatism aside — until he gets to the hackneyed line, “I’ll keep my social distance / What this world needs is a hug.” Ugh: There’s no vaccine for a lyric that cloying. Equally lachrymose is “Story of Love,” a discussion of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters so banal that your teeth may hurt from the levels of saccharine introduced into your system.
Bon Jovi keeps up the three-hanky chatter through the rest of “2020,” but other lyrics are more matter-of-fact and hardcore cutting-to-the-chase than those two messy tracks.
The gently plucked acoustic guitars and harmonicas of “American Reckoning” make an interesting counterbalance to JBJ’s fireside chat – of conscience looted, of souls under siege, and of mothers crying as history repeats ”I can’t breathe.” You may be pissed off that Bon Jovi dares to use George Floyd’s dying words, but also willing to concede that it’s an effective aid in the lyricist’s portrayal of cops acting as “judge and jury” and 12-year-old Black children wondering if they could be next to die. As far as heavy-handed histories written in blood go, “American Reckoning” is a potent one.
The same thing is true of the timpani FX and hard-strummed acoustics of “Lower the Flag.” Again, Bon Jovi never met a hand too heavy to shake and a cliché too commonplace to make, but in this discussion of mass shootings, to picture the media moving from tragedy to tragedy before its audiences gets a chance to grieve is a sadly solid point. And when the music slows to a steady, unsteadying plink, and the singer drops his already gravelly voice — a surprise move on “2020,” which gives every line reading handsome gravitas — an octave lower while reciting the names of towns where said shootings took place, JBJ is going for the gut.
Not every song on “2020” is soaked in blood, arsenic and heavy syrup where the headlines are concerned. And not every torrid track within veers towards Bon Jovi’s country side.
The garage-band guitars and whoo-ooh boy backgrounds of “Beautiful Drug” pit love against evil (uh-oh) as the answer to all that ails with a Monkees/“Stepping Stone”-like halt. The tautly rocking “Let It Rain” uses David Bryan’s hammering piano to build the track, incrementally, to a Roy Bittan-ish crescendo worthy of Bruce’s “Born to Run” phase. The swaggering glitter-soul of “Brothers in Arms” takes Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” intro and JBJ’s lowest, knuckle-dragging growl into a rough-riding, warm tale of hard rains and soft sells.
And while most of “2020’s” arrangements are austere, and its production is more cuttingly direct and fat-trimmed than ever (courtesy JBJ and his longtime collaborator/instrumentalist John Shanks), the “days are numbered / the end is near” finality of “Blood in the Water” manages to slip in a little glamor in its grandly crossfiring guitars and JBJ’s best, most open-throated vocal performance on the album. Jon is sad about how the devil’s surefire tricks made the bad guy hard to spot, but the vocalist sounds more angry than mournful, and more lusty and heartened than forlorn.
So, yeah, Jon Bon Jovi on “2020” is an older and wiser father coming to terms with the world he’s brought his kids into — his children at home; the fans he’s brought along for the ride; his entire catalog — with all the clichés a dad can muster. Sometimes those words are bland. Sometimes they’re bold, provocative and straight-spoken. At least he’s not content to just go down in a blaze of glory, or continue to merely give love a bad name.