There was a song on Bon Jovi’s last album, The Circle, called “Work For The Working Man.” It found Jon Bon Jovi aligning himself with the blue collar worker. “I lost my pension, they took my I.D.,” he sang and fans, well, they didn’t like it. The consensus was that Jon was too rich to be singing about getting his hands in the dirt. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I suppose it rang a bit false with me, but at the same time I found myself thinking that if Bruce Springsteen released the exact same song people would be calling it one of his best songs of all-time, this even though Bruce is surely in the same tax bracket as Jon. So, why should one one percenter be allowed to sing about the struggles of the everyday man while another gets criticized for it? That hardly seems fair. I mention this now because Bon Jovi’s new album, What About Now, features several songs where Jon aligns himself with the working class. If you can appreciate his position and embrace his desire to be an advocate and inspiration then you’ll likely fall in love with the album. But if you believe Jon has no place singing about being a teacher or a farmer, which he does during the hopeful “What’s Left Of Me,” then you’re not going to like it one bit.
The first time I listened to What About Now, I found myself thinking that it was too catchy for its own good. It seemed to be an album full of generic anthems, attempts to re-write “Livin’ On A Prayer.” It would have been easy to dismiss it like that, but I like to give an artist the benefit of the doubt and at least give something a few spins before saying it’s not for me. And so I kept on listening. I recall liking it even less the second time I heard it. But something changed the third time. I started paying closer attention to the lyrics. The album might have been full of fist-pumping anthems, but it was not lacking substance in its verses. Plus, the more I listened to it, the more each song took on its own identity and stopped feeling like attempts to re-write past hits.
The first song that really grabbed me was “I’m With You,” which is easily the darkest-sounding song on the album. “Look at this world, it’s filled with worn out places, forgotten faces and nothing changes,” Jon sings with a hint of depression in his voice. While the song has normal guitar riffs, it also seems to have backward guitar tracks, giving it an eerie vibe. Then there are those creepy backing vocals, Richie Sambora’s voice processed to sound robotic as he delivers the lines, “If I got one thing, I got something to prove, we all got nothing, if there’s nothing to lose.” But then there’s Jon, reassuringly delivering the titular lyric, “I’m with you.” But if that’s not comforting enough, it’s followed by the title track, “What About Now,” which features some of the band’s strongest up-tempo hooks to date. “For the faithful, the believer, for the faithless, and the teacher, stand up and be proud, what about now,” Jon and company sing. It really couldn’t be more optimistic, but hasn’t hope always been one of the primary things Bon Jovi fans looked for in their albums?
Another track I was immediately drawn to was “Pictures Of You.” It starts off like blissful synthpop and retains an upbeat vibe throughout, but the lyrics are slightly creepy at times. “If I should go crazy, if I would go blind, I’d still find the canvas, from the pictures in my mind, if that’s the only way I can make you mine.” I’m sure it’s not intended to be an anthem for stalkers but one could argue that it shares a bit of their desperation. When Jon later sings, “I’m always painting pictures” during the final chorus it feels a bit like a threat and it never fails to send a chill down my spine.
One of the biggest problems with The Circle was its lack of ballads. Fortunately, What About Now has a few. On the mellow side there’s “Amen,” which pairs Jon’s voice with soaring strings — likely provided by keyboardist David Bryan — along with gentle acoustic guitars and very minimal percussion. “Mercy, mercy, what else can I say, but Amen,” Jon sings after complimenting a lady. I’m sure some will say its cheesy but it’s precisely the sort of ballad I was hoping the album would deliver. I was also hoping for an epic ballad a la “Bed of Roses” and “Always” and the album also delivers that in the form of the endearing “Thick As Thieves.” “It’s classic boy meets girl, with our backs against the world, you and me, thick as thieves,” goes the syrupy chorus. Too sugary? Maybe. But watch out — it still might make your heart skip a beat. And if that doesn’t do it for you then there’s the cinematic, mid-tempo ballad “Room At The End Of The World.” “There’s a room at the end of the world, where your memories are safe, there’s a room at the end of the world, just gotta have some faith,” Jon sings reassuringly. It’s hard not to picture hundreds of lighters — or illuminated cell phones — as they perform it in concert.
Also noteworthy is the memorable anthem “Army Of One” where David Bryan is given ample opportunity to let his keyboards shine while Sambora delivers much of the chorus: “Never give up, never, never let up, ever, never give in, you’re an army of one.” Some will probably criticize the band for comparing themselves to soldiers, but it’s not as though they’re claiming to go through what our troops experience overseas. “I know that life’s a battlefield, when times get tough, I’m a soldier,” Jon sings. It’s just a figure of speech, really, nothing for anyone to get upset about. Yet I can already hear the detractors who criticized “Work For The Working Man” mentally composing their negative comments about this one.
Finally, the strongest song on the album is easily “Beautiful World.” With stellar guitar hooks, lots of energy and a highly infectious chorus, it’s one of the band’s most triumphant songs ever. (And that’s saying a lot.) “This ain’t paradise, we’re living in, it’s a diamond, it’s a dirty plastic pearl, ah, but ain’t it a beautiful world?” It’s hard to argue with that. Besides, when did being passionate about life go out of style?