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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

If 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.)

The 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.

But 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.)

So 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 a cowboy.”

The 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 pseudo-blues.

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 on.

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.

Kelly 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.


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