Review Summary: Bon Jovi take a creative risk to encapsulate the year with an album that is their most ambitious and diverse in years, despite a few hits and misses along the way.
Bon Jovi have divided listeners for the better part of 15 years with their move to a more contemporary, radio-friendly sound. They still draw in millions of fans to each tour and release albums that top the charts on release, something many of their 1980s counterparts have not been able to do since their heyday. However, many listeners also yearn for the days of hairspray, loud guitars and high-pitched vocals. While it is indisputable that Bon Jovi hit their peak with 1986’s “Slippery When Wet” and 88’s “New Jersey”, it is important to realise that time has come and gone. Bon Jovi certainly recognised this, evolving creatively several times with the grunge-influenced “Keep The Faith”, the dark undertones of “These Days”, and underdoing a complete rebirth with “Crush”, the country-tinged “Lost Highway” and the reflective lyrics of “This House Is Not For Sale”. So where can the band now go, as front-man Jon stares down his 60th birthday and almost 40 years of writing and performing?
The band clearly has nothing left to prove, and certainly nothing left to lose. That doesn’t mean Jon Bon Jovi has nothing left to say, which leads us to “2020”. Having explored and reflected on his own life and the goings-on in the band with 2016’s “This House Is Not For Sale”, Jon decides to tackle the world around him on this release, commenting on everything from the rise of gun violence in America (“Lower The Flag”) to Veterans suffering from PTSD after active service (“Unbroken)”. What would become “2020” was originally written and recorded in 2019 for an early 2020 release, until the original release of this album and it’s supporting tour were cancelled with the United States becoming the nation most heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This delay led to a re-shuffle of the album’s focus, including the addition of new tracks “Do What You Can”, inspired by the response to the pandemic, and “American Reckoning” which comments on the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent political fallout. These additions ensure that the album perfectly encapsulates the events witnessed by the band and its audience in the last two years.
Creating an album with lyrics focusing on such specific topics is always a risk; there is always the possibility that the songs become dated in a few years’ time when the topics they address fade into the history books. The answer to whether this album and its songs will suffer the same fate as many other event-specific releases won’t be apparent for quite some time, but the risk taken by the band, despite being in a place where they can comfortably afford to take such chances, is admirable nevertheless. This creative risk paves the way for some of their best work both lyrically and musically in over a decade; “Blood in the Water” is an instant highlight from this album, with guitars that harken back to their “Dry County” days (albeit being possibly a touch too similar to the latter), thundering drums in a powerful, memorable chorus and with vocals that angrily lament the treatment of refugees at the hands of “the devil” (we needn’t say more, as Bon Jovi’s political record clearly states his intended target). “American Reckoning” is hauntingly beautiful, with the choice to include a harmonica in place of a more conventional guitar solo being one that helps it truly stand out. “Brothers In Arms” sees Jon Bon Jovi channel his love for Bruce Springsteen, in a bluesy, riff-driven rocker that is hard not to tap along to. The more optimistic songs “Limitless”, “Beautiful Drug” and “Let It Rain” explore more universal themes, and while they might venture into more predictable arena-rock Bon Jovi territory (particularly “Limitless”), they are still enjoyable and ensure that the album does not become too overburdened with it’s heavier themes.
However, while many songs on this album succeed in delivering one of Bon Jovi’s most musically and lyrically diverse releases, there are a few songs that miss the mark. “Story of Love” is the only awful song out of these; while attempting to reflect the love parents have for their children, is among one of the band’s cheesiest, cringeworthy moments (such as a lullaby being the hook – why?), only redeemed by a magnificent piano and guitar-led outro. However, it’s very difficult to sit through the first three and a half minutes of sappy lyrics to get to the ending. It’s hard to understand why the far superior outtake “Shine” didn’t make the standard edition of the album instead of this one, with its strong melodies, catchy chorus that harkens back to Bon Jovi ballads such as “Thank You For Loving Me” or “I’ll Be There For You”. Likewise, “Lower The Flag” has a powerful message that is underwhelmed by a lack of musical dynamic (5 minutes of acoustic guitar and limited vocal range is a tough ask of fans) which leaves it overshadowed by the more powerful “American Reckoning”. “Do What You Can” is a song that feels unfinished; a well-placed guitar solo could have made an otherwise good song possibly the best on the album, harkening back to the 2005’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”. The country-duet version with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles is a vast improvement, with the song being redeemed by the addition of another vocalist to make it stand out.
“2020” sees Bon Jovi take quite a few creative risks, and surprisingly, the songs where they venture the furthest from their comfort zone musically and lyrically is where you will find the highlights. This isn’t a perfect Bon Jovi album, nor is it their best work. Maybe this album isn’t one that people envisioned from the band; it is definitely the album that best reflects the world we’re living in, and Bon Jovi, despite a few missteps, have definitely created something truly unique and special here.
“Blood in the Water”, “American Reckoning”, “Brothers In Arms”, “Do What You Can”
“Story of Love”, “Lower The Flag”