If it could be said that Jon Bon Jovi’s 2016 album This House Is Not for Sale dealt with personal issues, then 2020 (2/10/2020; Island Records) deals with social themes. And specifically the songs deal with subjects that are red hot in America right now, such as racism; xenophobia; and war. The cover image sums up these diverse issues by showing Bon Jovi with his head leaning forward, and gesticulating as if he's about to speak. An American flag can be seen reflecting in the singer’s sunglasses, and the whole image is in black and white, to add to its dramatic effect.
Bon Jovi used to be associated with somewhat lighter themes, but with 2020 he has moved into heavier territory. He had initially planned to release this album in May 2020, but the pandemic led to him ditching a couple of songs, Luv Can and Shine, and replacing them with the more politically sharp-edged American Reckoning, about George Floyd's death, and Do What You Can, about supporting the fight against Covid-19. This change has made other tracks on the album, such as Unbroken, seem more politically charged than they otherwise might have been.
While lead guitarist Phil X, keyboardist David Bryan, rhythm guitarist John Shanks, bassist Hugh McDonald, percussionist Everett Bradley and drummer Tico Torres have all been instrumental in producing this album, the cover photo, and the fact that Bon Jovi brought all the draft songs to his Nashville studio on his smartphone, seem to suggest that the vocalist was leading the process from the start.
The cheery and catchy Limitless kicks off the album, with Bon Jovi demanding that we ‘Wake up!’ because, he says, there is no limit to what can be achieved. This song appears to have been written before the pandemic, but Bon Jovi would probably endorse the sentiment for this year anyway, as it provides a boost in mood before the album’s heavier offerings. In Limitless the singer-songwriter is also offering fans a familiar pop song, with sharp guitar sections and all the whoa-oh-ohs you could want.
Do What You Can was reportedly inspired by the caption ‘If You Can’t Do What You Do… Do What You Can’, which was placed under a picture of the singer washing dishes in JBJ Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant in Red Bank. In true community spirit, Bon Jovi wrote the first verse and chorus to the song and then invited fans to post in their own verses, which they did in droves. ‘Although I’ll keep my social distance, What this world needs is a hug, Until we find the vaccination, There’s no substitute for love,’ may work for you as a lyric or not, but the song has racked up around two million views on Youtube in a few weeks and has a lot of good reviews. Following its initial release, the tune was also released separately as a duet with country singer Jennifer Nettles.
This positive message of hope and the need for togetherness is followed by the harder hitting American Reckoning, which evokes George Floyd in the emotive lyric ‘I can’t breathe’ and talks about the history of racial discrimination in the US. In fact Bon Jovi’s bandmates felt aspects of the song were too strong, but Bon Jovi mostly stuck to his original idea. I think he was right to do so, especially when I recall Bob Dylan’s Hurricane and the controversy it caused at the time; would we really want to be without that song? Bon Jovi at least had it clear: "I was moved to write American Reckoning as a witness to history. I believe the greatest gift of an artist is the ability to use their voice to speak to issues that move us".
On the other hand, Story of Love, sounds like a mis-step to me. In it Bon Jovi talks about family and parenthood, but it is far too sugary-sweet for my taste. Much better is Lower the Flag, which is inspired by the 2019 Dayton shooting. Initially the song reportredly had drums, but during the studio recording Torres felt that the beat was interfering with the how the tune developed and so he generously suggested that his part be excluded, and the band agreed. This change helped emphasize and reinforce both the lovely acoustic guitar part and the anti-gun message.
The bluesy ballad Blood In The Water refers to the struggles migrants face, and envisages a biblical-style reckoning ahead, while the wonderfully rocking Brothers In Arms provides some welcome relief from the heavier themes. The album closer, Unbroken, was written as a soundtrack for the film To Be of Service, released in 2019. Unbroken refers to the lot of war veterans in general and those who suffer PTSD in particular. A new interpretation was made after Bon Jovi met Prince Harry in Abbey Road earlier this year and they recorded a version with Harry’s ‘Invictus’ Veteran’s choir.
In sum, Jon Bon Jovi had clear at the outset that, given today’s context, he wanted to make a record that did not dodge the major issues of the day. Furthermore, he has ‘put his money where his mouth is’ by backing it up with financial support for a large range of charities. Yes, long-time fans might greatly miss Richie Sambora and those powerful guitar licks, and there is not much that can be done about that, but Bon Jovi has stamped his mark on a piece of work with character and strength, and that is only to be lauded.