We may one day look back on it as the greatest moment of Jon Bon Jovi’s career: During his set at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, the former pop-metal punchline brought to the stage fellow Garden State emissary Bruce Springsteen. The duo sang together on the Bon Jovi crossover hit “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” while footage of the band’s front man consoling storm victims played on the screen behind them.
Once, not too long ago, these things would have been unthinkable: that Jon Bon Jovi, 51, would become the sort of figure who tours natural disaster wreckage while looking concerned, trailed by camera crews and officials in windbreakers; that the mighty Bruce would be reduced to a prop, a supporting player in the Jon Bon Jovi Show.
His brief Sandy set did more to elevate Bon Jovi than years of hit singles ever could, but it humanized him, too: In the presence of the Boss, Jon Bon Jovi, who, underneath the hair mousse and perfect teeth has always seemed like an exceedingly cool customer, looked as thrilled as a little kid. At one point, they briefly man-hugged. Springsteen, who had publicly greeted the earlier, clumsier advances of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with a sort of noble forbearance, appeared almost pleased.
“What About Now,” released three months later, is the band’s best album in years, and the first to take full advantage of Jon Bon Jovi’s increasingly statesman-like public profile. Operation Take Bon Jovi Seriously may have crested during his 12-12-12 set, but he has been working toward this moment for years, relying on a combination of charity work and carefully cultivated political endorsements and affiliations. (He and Hillary Clinton are said to be friends who hang out together in the Hamptons, a sentence that no one would have ever typed in 1993.)
This sensibility has taken longer to filter down to the band’s songs, which have been working-class-focused since the beginning, but have only recently become overtly topical. Pitched perfectly to the moment, “What About Now” is the group’s most politically minded album yet, though it still traffics mostly in generalities. Bon Jovi didn’t get here by taking too many chances with its brand, and the vagueness is a sensible prescription. No one will want to hear a song about the recession of ’08 a decade from now, but non-specific, Big Tent-rallying cries against Hard Times (like the lighter waving sing-alongs “Army of One” and “I’m With You”) will always resonate.
“What About Now” features the usual mix of ballads and rapid-fire pop-rock tracks, with vanishingly few traces of the modest country-pop the band flirted with in the mid-2000s, and more of an emphasis on U2-style rafter shakers and Springsteen-circa- “Wrecking Ball”-laments.
“What’s Left of Me,” the album’s most socially inclined track, is a CliffsNotes approximation of a Springsteen song, a compendium of well-worn tropes assembled for maximum inoffensiveness, and arranged in a way that strongly recalls “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” “I’m a teacher, I’m a farmer, I’m a union man/It’s getting hard to make a living in this hard land,” rasps Bon Jovi, who goes on to decry the outsourcing of workers, the closing of CBGB and the plight of returning soldiers and newspapermen. It’s an ostensible call to arms that has the rote feel of a checklist, although it’s not that they don’t mean it — Bon Jovi always Means It. Irony is the band’s kryptonite, shameless hokum its go-to emotion. But Bon Jovi sounds insincere even when being sincere (successful hard rock bands often have the opposite problem). It may be a relic of that Aqua-Net-and-leopard-print-leggings past; it may be the passion deficit in the voice of Jon Bon Jovi, who rarely sounds sad, merely displeased; it may just be an inherent, unbearable slightness.
When “What About Now” succeeds, which it does much of the time, it’s because the band has managed to wring some genuine sentiment out of its own congenital mawkishness (the gentle ballad “Amen”) without overdoing things (the Bono-in-Jersey mid-tempo track “Pictures of You”).
“What About Now” may be the first Bon Jovi album in history with singles that feel like throwaways (like the cheery “Because We Can,” which is so unremarkable that even Jon Bon Jovi seems to lose interest halfway through), and deep cuts that feel weighty.
Closing track “The Fighter,” a folk ballad that suggests Simon & Garfunkel after a visit to a renaissance faire, is the finest thing here. Somber and restrained, with a grizzled, thoughtful vibe befitting Bon Jovi’s role as an emerging eminence grise, it’s the sort of high-risk, medium-reward song the young Bon Jovi would never have bothered with, and the middle-aged veteran dispatches as if it were hardly any trouble at all.
Stewart is a freelance writer.