you still think Bon Jovi is a punch line after a quarter-decade
in the industry, then maybe (just maybe) the joke is on you.
Because if Jon Bon Jovi has proven anything, it’s that critical
acclaim and coolness aren’t necessary sustenance for a long,
successful career with more flows than ebbs.
Jon Bon Jovi and crew have all of the staying power of U2,
but function on a whole different model. (Bono and Jon are
both good friends with Al Gore and both are similar in personal
ideology, but Jon, a professed Democrat and liberal, is as
calculated in his lack of commercial political expression
as Bono is in his fervency.)
big news is that Lost Highway is a “country” album.
But it’s only a country album because Jon Bon Jovi says it’s
a country album, not because it’s soaked in pedal steel or
because it screams “country.” It simply sounds like Bon Jovi
circa 2007, with a few Nashville concessions, but it’s being
marketed squarely at the country market.
Jon Bon Jovi understands that contemporary country music is
only a few strands of DNA away from his hypersentimental pop-rock.
He also understands that young country artists probably have
been influenced more by “Wanted Dead or Alive” than by Hank
Williams. He shrewdly tested those waters last year by collaborating
with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland on “Who Says You Can’t
Go Home,” for which he took home his first Grammy and had
a No. 1 hit on the country chart. Now he’s hitting them with
a whole album.
consider Jon Bon Jovi himself: He grew up in public; has had
no substance abuse issues; has always steered clear of the
tabloids; married his high-school sweetheart; loves New Jersey;
is gracious, polite, outwardly humble and quietly philanthropic;
has four kids (teens to tots) that you will never see a photo
of; has sold more than 120 million albums; and remains synonymous
with “cheese” despite great success. (In many ways, he’s like
a CliffsNotes version of his idol, Bruce Springsteen.)
this would be a natural point at which to point out the unexpectedly
redeeming qualities of Lost Highway—but good business,
as we well know, does not necessarily amount to good songs.
This album’s predecessor, Have a Nice Day, was a far
better album, reveling in the brand of nervy, energetic cloudbursts
of guitar pop that Bon Jovi does so well.
Here, the lead ballad’s title, “(You Want to) Make a Memory,”
telegraphs its saccharine intention to become an “our song”
for generations of musically compromised lovers. The title
track, “Lost Highway,” is Americana cliché embodied (yet long
literary strides ahead for the man who once rode a “steel
horse”); it’s a broad narrative about, yep, the freedom of
the highway (stay with me here: That highway is analogous
to “life”), replete with a “plastic dashboard Jesus.” (Paul
Newman is rolling over in his . . . bed.)
But picking apart Bon Jovi’s artistry is like a game-farm
hunt (i.e., one should feel more than a bit guilty about it),
and one school of criticism suggests that a writer should
figure out what an artist is trying to accomplish and then
evaluate how well the artist has met that goal. (I don’t agree,
but . . . ) Based on that, Bon Jovi has made an album as bad
as any in Nashville, full of broad strokes and forced, good-time
platitudes—but bad albums and goofy sentiments often don’t
have the kind of artistic undertow in Nashville that they
might have elsewhere. Rather, this is already a riptide of
success, and let’s face it: He’s not really chasing down a
new audience. They were his all along. He had them at “I’m
John Lennon tribute Instant Karma: Save Darfur
certainly wasn’t artistically necessary, but it’s hard to
quibble with such good intentions. True to the nature of these
things, you have some artists investing themselves with all
of the weight of a Tom Cruise performance: Lenny Kravitz’s
space-funky exaggeration of “Cold Turkey,” Jack Johnson covering
“Imagine” (he must have drawn the short straw; it’s like trying
to reenvision Pachelbel’s Canon), Los Lonely Boys shaping
“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” into their bouncy, commercial
But also listen to Jackson Browne simply and touchingly hunkering
down into “Oh, My Love” or U2 doing a straight-ahead “Instant
Karma”: here you find artists skillfully tracing their own
DNA. Then there are the surprises: Christina Aguilera’s soulful
“Mother,” which continues her graceful evolution into anti-
Britney maturity, and the Postal Service finding warmth among
potentially cold electronica expanses in “Grow Old With Me.”
Overall, a decent album, where even the low points aren’t
that low, what with Lennon’s songcraft to fall back
UK brother trio The Cribs enlisted Franz Ferdinand’s
Alex Kapranos to produce the excellent slab of punchy, melodic
’80s-fashioned art-pop Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever.
There isn’t a track without a hook to hang a hat on, and it’s
all pitted against a kind of angular, perfectly calculated
awkwardness and simplistic, skittering and catchy guitar lines.
“My Life Flashed Before My Eyes” slams Ryan Jarman’s Tom Verlaine-like
yelps against sweet guitar crush as it staggers headlong into
the bright chorus, while “Our Bovine Public” is a near-perfect
two-minute bounce down new-wave memory lane.
Clarkson’s My December was preceded by lots of
drama. In short: She wants to be a bad-ass rocker, label head
Clive Davis wants more pop hits, tour canceled. The reality:
The album sounds like Evanescence, and we already have an
Evanescence. (And what was Kelly Clarkson hoping to achieve
by hanging around with and name-checking Mike Watt?) Clarkson’s
contribution to my own household is that I occasionally hear
my sweet 6-year-old daughter launching into embittered, double-wide,
divorcee lyrics from the car seat behind me.
To end on a high note, if you haven’t heard Brad Paisley’s
song about wanting to check his woman for ticks (“Ticks,”
from 5th Gear), then you’re not doing yourself any
favors. Paisley always has seemed little more chromosome-enriched
than a lot of his country-music peers, and whereas some “funny”
country songs sound just stupid (Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks
my Tractor’s Sexy”), Paisley stumbles upon Jonathan Swift-like
genius on this one. (A sampling: “I’d like to kiss you way
back in the sticks/I’d like to walk you through a field of
wildflowers and I’d like to check you for ticks/I know the
perfect little path out in these woods I used to hunt/Don’t
worry babe: I’ve got your back and I’ve also got your front.”)
The popularity bar on my iTunes tells me I’m not the only
one in the know. (How’s the album? Who cares? Does it matter?
Have you heard “Ticks”?) I just love the way he croons “your
jeans are playin’ peekaboooooo . . . ” in that Southern drawl.
Here’s hoping my daughter doesn’t hear this one.