Review Summary: Amid huge choruses and jangly hooks, Bon Jovi attempts to champion the everyman. However, a lack of legitimacy ensures an overall failure.
There was almost certainly a time when Jon Bon Jovi knew what it was like to struggle. Before releasing a trio of consecutive albums that sold over 41 million copies in the US alone, headlining mega arena tours that rivaled the Boss and U2, and being paid handsomely for acting performances that made Keanu Reeves look like the second coming of 70’s era Pacino, one can reasonably assume Jon had to work a 9 to 5, get his hands dirty, fire up a TV dinner, and damn it, scrape just to survive.
Bon Jovi’s latest, “The Circle,” has been labeled as a “return to form.” This cliché has been utilized ad-nauseum by aging rockers, and the result is usually as predictably bad as a Tommy Lee musical or television themed “side project.” In Bon Jovi’s case, after a tremendously subpar dalliance in country on 2007’s Lost Highway, “The Circle” actually is a return to form. Namely, the record is a recession laced 12 track attempted re-write of the protagonist Tommy’s struggles in “Livin’ on a Prayer,” combined with the overly nostalgic overtones of “Never Say Goodbye.”
“The Circle” is loaded with the bastard children of Tommy, namely the down on their luck working men of America who lament their struggles, shifting from utter hopelessness to extreme optimism, all while nostalgically waxing poetic about the good old days and what has yet to come. Set atop a neatly polished sheen of a musical package, the band wonders who is going to “Work for the Working Man,” who is going to cure the “Thorn in their Side”, because damn it, they have to find a way to “Live Before they Die.”
Recession era Bon Jovi is akin to 80’s arena Bon Jovi in the sense they are back to delivering soaring choruses complete with a cavalcade of “Hey Hey’s,” Sha-la la's,” “Na Na Na's,” and “Whoa-oh's,” but this time around, their working man anthems have about as much sincerity as liberal west coast elites discussing the plight of the homeless while sipping port wines and devouring Kobe beef. Jon ensures us that he is damn sure he isn’t going to ignore the everyman, and he is going to take every chance to get his hands dirty to lend a helping hand. The glaring problem is this package cannot be delivered with an ounce of sincerity by a band that will most certainly charge three figures for a nose bleed seat on the sure to follow massive arena tour. It doesn’t work.
One listen to the record will render an obvious point that the band is trying really hard to blend a theme of “Scarecrow” era Mellencamp, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” era Springsteen, combined with the attempted sound of “Joshua Tree” era U2. While Jon spends most of the album attempting to rip off the above mentioned contemporaries, Richie Sambora’s guitar work sounds like he spent two weeks in a studio with the Edge, picking up on the jangly reverb laced style of U2 themed guitar but never really pulling it off.
It’s not to say that the album isn’t catchy, the safe and steady arena rock laced verse/soaring chorus/quiet interlude/buildup to final crescendo formula is present and accounted for on almost every song, most notably on lead singles “Born to Follow” and “When We Were Beautiful.” While Sambora is nowhere near rivaling The Edge in terms of jangly reverb, there are hooks aplenty, and fairly large ones at that. The problem lies in the fact that there is only one exorbitantly wealthy artist from New Jersey who can legitimately pull off themes of the working man and using cars as a metaphor for human life (Fast Cars), and his name starts with Bruce. Moreover, vapid lyrics like “When you’re young you always think the sun will shine, you don’t know someday you’ll have to say hello to goodbye,” on “Live Before You Die,” belong on a Tim McGraw record.
On the whole, “The Circle” would be a perfect album for the working man to pump their fists to at a live show, provided they can afford the admission and simply let go of the fact their nostalgic preacher is earning more per song then they will in five years. As a musical piece, it is their most accessible work since “Crush,” and ignoring the painfully placed lyrics can lead to an enjoyable listen in the right time at the right place. However, as an album, despite the intention to bring back Tommy while channeling their inner Springsteen crossed with U2, the final verdict is decidedly average, at best. The bad news is that “The Circle” will most certainly sell too many albums, will be featured at thousands of yuppie dinner parties, and is a car commercial waiting to happen. The good news? At least it isn’t country.