Over the past several years, it seems like Bon Jovi have been on a quest to find ways to stay relevant since the hair-band pinnacle of their career back in the 1980s. This has included (wisely) shedding the glam-rock vibe, venturing into pop-rock, and even a foray into country. So it seems ironically appropriate for them to title an album What About Now; almost like it’s asking the question, “Have we hit the mark this time?”
I find myself in a dilemma here, because at least in theory, I am in favor of music promoting positive messages or attempting to convey hope, as this album frequently does. I don’t want to fall on the side of criticizing an album because it’s too “happy” or not angsty enough. But the problem is, our culture is uber-sensitive to soapboxes right now; whether the message is positive or negative, we don’t like to feel preached to, especially in artistic expressions like music or film. So it’s a fine line right now to convey hope in a song without it sounding like you’re using the platform as a soapbox to promote an agenda. The other fine line is in expressing hope without sounding insincere or out of touch with reality—in other words, sounding believable. I find that in the case of What About Now, Bon Jovi trips over both of these fine lines constantly.
A lot of critics have already drawn comparisons between this record and the regular output of fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen, who is known for his outspoken messages (but for some reason seems to get away with it). In all fairness to Bon Jovi, this record is not quite as political as Springsteen, and most of the preaching is contained in the first three songs or so. But it’s like those early songs set a tone that we can’t seem to get over, no matter how far down the track list we go, and there’s simply not enough substance in the record, either musically or lyrically, to shake the bad taste left in our mouths from those first few tunes. The result is a rather bland stew of trite sermons and forgettable love songs, sprinkled with Jon Bon Jovi’s signature shtick of I-yam-what-I-yam, want-to-be-good-but-can’t, beyond-saving-or-gonna-get-to-heaven-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth. A lot of good ideas, but in the end it’s just a mess.
There was one bright spot I found on this record, and it might not be what others would choose—but in the midst of the mess, the love ballad “Thick As Thieves” was the one tune I actually believed. It combines heartfelt lyrics with emotional music in a way that lets us know what this band is still capable of, and is certainly worth downloading as a single.
With recent releases by the likes of David Bowie and Eric Clapton, it seems to be the season for established rock icons to release fresh material for the fans. Bon Jovi should by now be in that pantheon of artists with a solid track record and nothing to prove, releasing great new music just for the joy of it. But it seems their records of recent years have not measured up to the standards they set for themselves in their heyday, and What About Now unfortunately does not reverse that trend. I have no doubt the album will sell well, but it will sell because of the Bon Jovi name, not because of the record’s substance.