Album name: The Circle
Artist name: Bon Jovi
Released: November 2009
ZME Rating: 7/10
There are two possible scenarios that come to mind when I try to picture a Bon Jovi songwriting session. Obviously, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora are there. They’re probably joined by their co-writer of choice – say, Desmond Child or Billy Falcone or whoever – and they’re brainstorming ideas for a spanking new set of songs. Scenario one features Richie holding a guitar (idly playing some blues runs that will never, ever make it onto another Bon Jovi album) as Jon’s face slowly erupts into a blinding grin: he has an idea. And it’s a good ‘un. “Hey guys: how about we pick a subset of middle America to patronise?” Last time around, it was country music fans. This time, it’s the working class and the newly-unemployed.
Scenario two is that these songs are Bon Jovi’s genuine attempt to connect with the average Working Joe. I’m not sure which scenario is more depressing.
The problem Bon Jovi run into on The Circle, like a blind bull crashing full-speed into a sturdy wall, isn’t the same problem that plagued most of their post-millennial output: the songs are infinitesimally superior to anything on Have A Nice Day; the social commentary isn’t quite as plodding as Bounce; it’s a comforting balm to soothe the wounds left from the attempted career suicides of This Left Feels Right and Lost Highway. Instead, The Circle finds Bon Jovi struggling with identity in an entirely different way.
They position themselves on this album as the self-appointed spokesmen of the working class, without ever once sounding like they sincerely relate to the people they’re representing. And who can blame them? Jon isn’t the kid who watched games at Giants Stadium – he’s not even the excited rock star who’s playing his first show there. He’s a 40-something multi-millionaire who could fill the stadium to bursting point with mothers and daughters willing to drink any bodily fluid he’d offer up. He owns a football team now. He’s about as working class as German opera. He’s not living on a prayer, he’s living on a hectare. What you earn in a year, he spends in a week on nuclear-powered teeth whitening. Get my point?
The good news is that it probably doesn’t matter. You’re not listening to Bon Jovi for cutting insight and social commentary, and if you are, you’re probably deluded (or young) enough to find it here. Leave the political finger-wagging to Springsteen and Neil Young, and rejoice in the fact that Bon Jovi have rediscovered the joy of the Huge Chorus.
Rejoice further in the fact that Richie Sambora is back in a big way. Jon has mentioned in recent interviews that Lost Highway was more a Jon Bon Jovi album than any kind of joint effort, due to Sambora’s personal demons. The Circle seems to be the exact opposite: it sounds like Jon’s guitar parts have seriously decreased in number, and Richie’s guitar solos are back front and centre where they belong. The lyrics verge from singable to tolerable to laughable, often within the same song, just like every Bon Jovi album, but the melodies are consistently great. (My personal favourite lyrical clanger: “How does money lead to greed/when there’s still hungry mouths to feed?” How indeed. Of course, the band are hardly innocent in this respect. It’s rather like being lectured on human rights by Dick Cheney.)
Best of all, for perhaps the first time since Crush, there are moments of genuine inspiration here – enough to stamp out any lingering trace of disappointment from the dull, predictable lead single “We Weren’t Born To Follow”. Track two, “When We Were Beautiful”, manages to sound enormous (in a classic U2, stadium-rock-tinged-with-world-music way) and relatively sincere, which helps it stand apart from some of the more disingenuous anthems surrounding it. I’m looking at you, “Work For The Working Man”: home of the most obvious, focus-group-approved chorus in existence. Also, it pulls off the rather incredible feat of ripping off not one, but two, older Bon Jovi songs, with a bassline that’s equal parts “Living On A Prayer” and Keep The Faith‘s hidden gem, “Fear”.
The biggest problem Bon Jovi face, and have faced since their Crush comeback, is some deluded attempt to sound like a bigger, more expensive version of themselves. This means as many guitar tracks as possible (mostly muddled together by sub-standard production – how I miss the clear, distinct guitar attack on These Days) and an overly elaborate string section on each and every ballad: this albums’s main offender is the saccharine, awful “Live Before You Die”. I know Bon Jovi have never exactly been minimalists, but must every slow song drown in orchestral sludge? I can’t help but miss the band that managed to leave “Diamond Ring” well enough alone.
And when it comes right down to it, The Circle might be their strongest album since Crush, but it doesn’t come anywhere near to being as good as These Days or Keep The Faith, or their 80s classics. There’s no pop song as strong as “In These Arms”, no rock song as loose and genuine as “Little Bit Of Soul”, no anthem to match anything from Slippery When Wet or New Jersey. It’s as good as latter-day Bon Jovi gets, but nowhere near as good as they could be.