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When I was 12 and first discovering rock music there was nothing wrong with liking Bon Jovi. I got into Nirvana just the the right side of Kurt Cobain's suicide, I loved Guns N' Roses, I had a Megadeth t-shirt and the cover of Cannibal Corpse's Eaten Back To Life as an A2 poster, despite never hearing a note of the album. It was all rock music, it all fundamentally represented the same thing to me. I didn't yet know that Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were cool and Extreme and Poison weren't, to an uneducated pre-teen in 1993, Bon Jovi were as valid as Slayer. To a kid who didn’t know any better they sounded like a pretty good rock band.
Cheesy to the point of faintly embarrassing they may have been, but in their Eighties, Nineties and even Noughties peaks Bon Jovi were still emphatically a Rock Band (capital ‘R’, capital ‘B’). They had big solos and punch-the-air drum bits and proper riffs. Look at ‘Keep The Faith’, look at ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’, even ‘It’s My Life’. When they did ballads they were rock ballads: ‘Always’, ‘Bed of Roses’, ‘I’ll be There For You’... they had massive, thundering drums and solos that went on for several months, with guitarist Richie Sambora airlifted to mountain tops to play them in the video. Jon Bon Jovi, who lest we forget has a hell of a pair of lungs under that denim jacket, could open his throat and wail. These were songs designed to translate to 50,000 people all at once, anywhere in the world and despite the cliches the best of them became part of the fabric of modern rock music, you'll have to search for a long time to find anyone who doesn't know 'Living On A Prayer'.
There’s none of that on What About Now, the New Jersey quartet’s twelfth album. They eased out of the hard rock game several records back; what's left is a blend of Nashville pop and the kind of light anthems you get by adding Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida' to the Temper Trap's 'Sweet Disposition' and running the results through Ronan Keating's brain. It's slick as all hell but it's thunderingly uninspiring. When they do attempt some of the old fists-aloft magic it's usually faintly embarrassing, as proved by opener 'Because We Can', sent from some sort of horrible dimension where Garth Brooks is more important than Bruce Springsteen.
Over and over again What About Now pitches itself at the same commercially anthemic middle ground as U2, ideal for talent show montages and inspiring moments at award shows but ultimately anemic, soulless and forgettable. ‘Pictures Of You’, ‘Army Of One’, ‘With These Two Hands’ and Richie Sambora’s closing ‘Every Road Leads Home’ all suffer from a creeping blandness masquerading as widescreen euphoria.
It’s a shame, because when the band stick to their blue-collar Jersey roots things improve dramatically. Sure we’re lacking in rock thumpers, but other Jovi hallmarks do make welcome returns, notably the down n’ out narrative on ‘What’s Left Of Me’ and the bar-room stomp of ‘That’s What the Water Made Me’. Two stripped back acoustic waltzes, ‘Not Running Anymore’ and ‘Old Habits Die Hard’ are genuinely lovely, all walm, folky fingerpicking and brushed drums showing a band that still have plenty to offer when they stop playing to the middle ground.
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