Bon Jovi’s new album is titled 2020; a simple idea for a simple record … in a complicated year. And Bon Jovi, who has always excelled at simplicity, could be what some people need right now.
But not everyone.
Calling Bon Jovi simple isn’t an insult, not even back in the ’80s, when it was easy to get lost in a sea of simplicity. Jon Bon Jovi’s version usually has purpose, be it emulating his New Jersey musical godfather, Bruce Springsteen, with more flash and less substance, or simply playing up his looks with the guitar rock of the day.
There’s something honest about an artist reading and reacting to his surroundings. It’s also OK to finally refer to Bon Jovi individually and not necessarily as a band. Guitarist and co-writer Richie Sambora has been gone for nearly a decade, taking most of the band’s rock fuel with him. At least that’s the way it sounds in 2020 … or on 2020.
Most of this record was actually recorded in 2019, then was pushed back by the pandemic, giving Bon Jovi the chance to convey an updated mood with some fresh material, even if it does at times sounds more perfunctory than inspired.
Which makes the title of the opening track, “Limitless,” pretty ironic. The track that skews Springsteen lite (as does much of the record, unsurprisingly) features a vocal line that moves as well as anything on the album. “Do What You Can” is surprisingly bare-bones and lyrically literal–perhaps making it the best song on the record. The line, “You can’t do what you do; you do what you can,” comes off as a rousing dose of enthusiastic pragmatism. Yes, we get it; Things suck right now. So, let’s adjust, deal with it, and things will get better. It’s such a typically Bon Jovi sentiment that oddly resonates as perhaps the best COVID-themed song out there.
Jon Bon Jovi goes heavy on the Springsteen flavor on “American Reckoning,” pondering George Floyd’s “eight long minutes” and the realization that most of the United States simply can’t know what it’s like to walk in Black people’s shoes. It’s a startlingly effective song, reminiscent of the music world’s best post-9/11 material, powerfully musing on current events affecting so many.
That said, the rest of the record is kind of a letdown. The flipside of a simple approach is frequently a lack of adventure, which doesn’t usually bode well in rock and roll. It’s ironic that Jon Bon Jovi has said in interviews he sees 2020 as taking chances, which may be true, lyrically. But when one builds a career, at least partially, on energetic guitar riffs, a lack of them takes a toll. Losing Sambora certainly plays a part, but much of the music simply serves as an average backdrop.
It still has a few more moments. “Beautiful Drug” is plenty palatable bad; the message is very digestible. The piano-driven “Story of Love” is appealing in a nursery rhyme sort of way, warmly extoling parental love. “Brothers in Arms” has a John Fogerty feel to the verse, which is never a bad thing.
Even if Jon Bon Jovi gets credit for speaking from the heart, 2020 takes no musical chances, which hurts what otherwise could be a fine album. Fans might argue there’s no point, after more than 35 years of success. But the counterpoint might be “why not take a few risks at this point?” Not to do so is purposely limiting. But maybe he just doesn’t have it in him. His points are still well done and listenable, which still counts.
Follow music critic Tony Hicks at Twitter.com/TonyBaloney1967.