’s The Circle
is the veteran New Jersey band’s first rock record since their foray into country on 2007’s Lost Highway
. Unfortunately, The Circle
merely combines the worst tendencies of contemporary country with the band’s already well-established tendencies for toothless feel-good songs. Featuring lyrics that touch on current events in the most shameless of ways, The Circle
seeks to give comfort to downhearted listeners, but there are few things less inspiring than cheesy, phony uplift.
One Cliche After Another
Bon Jovi, led by telegenic frontman Jon Bon Jovi, have been consistently popular since the mid-‘80s, transitioning from the hair-metal hits of “Livin’ on a Prayer” to the adult-contemporary ballads of the ‘90s like “Always.” No matter what musical format they’ve followed, though, the ingredients have always been the same: straightforward lyrics about everyday concerns, choruses that will get people to sing along, and radio-friendly production that makes sure the song will entice as many ears as possible. On top of all this, Jon Bon Jovi has brandished a regular-guy appeal that’s reminiscent of fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen
. These qualities have been Bon Jovi’s winning strategy for more than 20 years, and one has to acknowledge that they’ve been one of the most consistent hitmakers during that time. But because The Circle
lacks the inspiration (or maybe just the chutzpah) of the band’s earlier years, it’s an album that’s oppressively weighed down by commercial calculation. As a result, all you can hear are the clichés.
For much of his career, Jon Bon Jovi has been mocked for his derivativeness. He emulates the common-man populism of Springsteen and the arena-sized ambition of U2
at their most inspirational. But as The Circle
demonstrates, Bon Jovi merely reference those musical legends without adding much themselves. And as they settle into middle age, Bon Jovi have become a platitude-dispensing machine that can’t get through a single song without uttering such banalities as “When you’re young you always think/The sun is going to shine/There will come a day/When you have to say hello to goodbye” (from “Live Before You Die”). As an accompaniment to such pseudo-wisdom, Bon Jovi will often throw in pianos and strings that are so saccharine that The Circle
can sometimes feel like the musical equivalent of a get-well card. Springsteen and Bono may want to inspire their audiences, too, but at least they come up with music that is equally rousing. By comparison, Bon Jovi just gives us syrupy goo.
Songs That Are Ripped From Today's Headlines
Perhaps most obnoxious, The Circle
addresses contemporary issues in the most reactionary ways. On “Work for the Working Man,” Jon Bon Jovi sings in the voice of a working stiff, and the leaden musical accompaniment (which slightly recalls “Livin’ on a Prayer”) indicates that this is supposed to be an urgent, ripped-from-the-headlines critique of America’s rising unemployment figures. But the song is so false on every level – for instance, Jon’s polished voice just can’t convey common-man complaints – that it’s almost an insult to its intended audience. Likewise, “Bullet” is reminiscent of Nickelback
’s huffing-and-puffing hard rock as the song details a crumbling inner-city ghetto. And although it’s touching that Jon Bon Jovi wants to speak about the world’s ills, the lack of specificity in his writing betrays his total lack of ignorance for his subject matter. In this way, The Circle
draws comparisons to mainstream country, which often reduces front-page news to lazy laments about society. When they started out, Bon Jovi had a scrappiness that put real pathos into their underdog tales. But after years of success, their attempts to continue with that persona feel desperate and cynical.
So Common They Disappear
Because The Circle
’s primary concern is the adult-contemporary chart, the album’s 12 tracks have a genial, breezy quality to them – this is music for people who just want to listen to something inoffensive in the background. So if you can tune out Jon’s lyrics, the album does have its moments. “Fast Cars” is a predictable tale of second chances, but its slowly building tempo has real energy behind it. And although neither of them break much ground creatively, the opening tracks “We Weren’t Born to Follow” and “When We Were Beautiful” at least are musically engaging. But even here, The Circle
merely apes others – “We Weren’t Born to Follow” could have been on Daughtry’s Leave This Town
, and “When We Were Beautiful” channels U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Bon Jovi are trying to give voice to the common man, but do they have to be so common while they do it?
'The Circle' – Best Tracks:
“Fast Cars” (Purchase/Download
“We Weren’t Born to Follow” (Purchase/Download
“When We Were Beautiful” (Purchase/Download
Release date – November 10, 2009