Without turning this simple album review into a misguided soapbox piece, why do aging artists so often drown in a sea of their own mediocrity? Is it a simple resting on laurels, a notion that the artist has achieved their personal pinnacle and it’s time to ride out the remainder of their career writing and performing excruciatingly lazy material? Is it a byproduct of the aging process, the flame of restless youthful energy struggling to stay lit? That can’t be true; artists have released excellent material in the twilights of their careers, albeit usually singer-songwriter types like Dylan, Cohen, and Waits. Morris Day and The Time’s resurrection as The Original 7ven yielded a record that stands easily with their classics. Rock purists may disagree on when Aerosmith officially died, but I’d argue that 1997’s Nine Lives was a remarkably stellar album for an original line-up band 30 years into their career.
As for Bon Jovi’s merits as a rock band, well, opinions are going to vary. I feel like odds are slim that the average listener doesn’t have one Bon Jovi song they enjoy — perhaps the megahits are a little sullied for you, but “Runaway” is a pretty unassailable little rocker, right? And what of “Bed of Roses”, still the most potent song about a sensitive touring rocker carrying a torch for a flame back home? Whatever your opinion of the band, however, one thing is immediately clear: their new album, What About Now, represents a severe drop-off in quality. They’ve been grasping towards the bottle of the barrel for easily a decade now, mind you, but congrats, Bon Jovi — you’ve arrived. You can maintain this level of quality for the rest of your career, and we the music-loving populace will collectively consider you a terrible band.
Perhaps I’m being overly critical of What About Now, an album that, from an objective standpoint, is probably more mediocre than anything. But the soft-rock slog that Bon Jovi find themselves mired in is so overwhelmingly dull, it inspires nothing. It’s so ridiculously safe. My original instinct was to compare modern-day Bon Jovi to adult contemporary like Train — except, hey, at least Train’s Pat Monahan is such a dunderheaded lyricist that his non sequitur turns of phrase inspire active laughter. (“So gangster, I’m so thug”, “a shy guy looking for a two-ply hefty bag to hold my love”… there’s no shortage of insanely misguided faux-beatnik poetry from that dude.) Jon Bon Jovi’s lyricism these days is generally reduced to lowest-common-denominator platitudes; I’d say phrases plucked from a rhyming dictionary, except everything’s so glaringly obvious that even that seems like more effort than was actually put into this record.
“I don’t wanna be another wave in the ocean”, the band sings in that shouty inspirational-anthem style they’ve been laying on thick ever since “You Give Love A Bad Name”, and that’s how the record kicks off; that song, “Because We Can”, introduces the album’s themes, which is something about self-respect or determination or perseverance or something equally faceless and maudlin. Elsewhere, the title track hinges on an amateurish set of thinly-veiled metaphors for motivation; “you wanna [accomplish a task], you gotta [do a thing that is instrumental in starting said task].”
All of which would be perfectly palatable if What About Now weren’t so gratingly mediocre. Once again, I understand that we’re not talking about, I dunno, Radiohead turning into Nickelback or anything; Bon Jovi were always kind of a dumb band, full of easy melodies and broad sentiments, but they were a spirited band. They were a band you could passively enjoy, really, if you needed something to shout along with, or a blast of easy nostalgia; they were Journey with a gruffer vocalist, essentially. There’s nothing wrong with old Bon Jovi; old Bon Jovi set out to make rock music’s low-hanging fruit, and accomplished it admirably. The Bon Jovi of What About Now accomplishes nothing. Workaday chord progressions, warmed-over melodies, not an impassioned performance in the bunch. Did JBJ and Richie Sambora go to a songwriting clinic held by the OneRepublic dude? (Also, the phrase “honeysuckle lips” happens here. Full letter grade docked for that alone.)
Consider how the songs on What About Now often kind of lazily sound like other songs. “I’m With You” — the track that comes the closest to sounding like something you may want to casually listen to again — is essentially Bon Jovi’s own personal “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”, down to replicating the structure and guitar tone. (There’s a bit of, of all things, Damien Rice’s “9 Crimes” in the chorus there — it’s not a direct ripoff, but it’s worth pointing out as ephemera.) Derivative to the core, “What About Now” tosses a sprig of “When You Were Young” into a blender with a nondescript Toby Keith song; “Beautiful World”, which struggles to be upbeat amongst a slog of midtempo balladry, even Xeroxes the verse melody to Matchbox Twenty’s “How Far We’ve Come” wholesale. (It’s worth noting that my wife looked up from her computer at one point and asked, “are you listening to Christian music? This sounds like Christian music.” If you’ve never been unfortunate enough to listen to modern Christian music, let me assure you that it’s the worst; Christians rarely take artistic risks. My wife’s comment, then, kind of serves as its own review-within-a-review, and it’s a cogent one.)
But hey, if you like empty-headed anthems, easy platitudes, toothless performances, and predicting what the next guitar chord is before it happens (you could turn that into a drinking game, I guess, although only if you don’t have to drive home), What About Now is right up your alley. Otherwise, What About Now is full of the unambitious, devoid of anything to clutch on to, to actively enjoy.
Kind of like New Jersey. HEY-O!
New Jersey defenders, don’t get uptight on me. I’m not dissing your home state; I live here myself. I’m just saying that…
Scratch that, New Jersey is the worst.
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