I've always been a believer that people should do what they do best and never be chided for it. For Bon Jovi, writing pop-rock songs riddled with clichés about the struggles of life is their calling. However, how often can they write the same song with the similar themes without being accused of plagiarizing themselves? The really great artists of our time find inspiration from within and find a way to channel their pain into a song and hopefully we latch on, because we need to redemption. Whenever I speak to an artist about the trials and tribulations of creating a record and they ask me for my advice, I always answer the same; "as long as it comes from the heart, no one can criticize you". My problem with The Circle is that notwithstanding all its grandiose declarations, I'm not sure if it's concocted or truly legitimate. Is this earnest or merely a sales-pitch for their next world tour? I can't say as only they know for sure. But one listen to "Work for the Working Man" gives the implication that Bon Jovi is out-of-touch with the real world. How can a band who is on top of the world associate themselves to the struggles of Middle America? People who have lost their pensions, their jobs, their homes and in the wreckage there is nothing left but broken dreams? Can a group of guys who have been standing on top of the world for two decades truly comprehend the ache, anguish and fears of a group of people a million tax brackets away? I'd like to say "yes", but I just can't swallow it. "Live Before You Die" features an earnest lyric that features sagging vocals from Bon Jovi amidst orchestral instrumentation that while possibly challenging, feels instantly dated. The sentimental story doesn't grab hold of you and lacks direction and it a prime example of the band trying too hard to manipulate emotions. What differentiates the Bon Jovi of the 1990's versus the 2000's are life experiences. During the previous decade, the band continually branched out and sought new experiences whether it was acting, solo projects or producing other artists. Since 2000, the band has been on a write/record/promote/tour train that has never subsided, therefore thwarting the writing talents of Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. The one true year they had off this decade (2004) still found the release of a box set and the writing and recording of the Have A Nice Day record. While they always manage to create a handful of songs on every record that endure, one can't help that they would make better top-to-bottom records if they took more time with them or went on hiatus only to came back recharged with a fresh stance of the world and their lives.
Fortunately, The Circle has its fair share of high points and as of this writing, I can safely say, it will receive a passing grade, but not without some debate. I can't help but think that many of these same topics and themes on The Circle were approached (rather inadequately) on their 2002 record Bounce. The song selection for Bounce is a topic of much debate with songs such as "Still Standing", "Alive", "No Regrets", "We Can Dance" and "Another Reason To Believe" all surpassing many of the songs ultimately included. Here we are seven-years later and The Circle shares many of the same themes. Sadly, one of the negative aspects of The Circle (and Bounce as well) is the production. Producer John Shanks doesn't embellish the Bon Jovi sound and in many ways, diminishes their power as a group. The argument that these songs will play better in concert doesn't fly, because this is the final product. If Bon Jovi released live concert recordings on a regular basis, I might change my mind, but they don't even release live b-sides anymore. Saying that the songs are largely spectacular while dismissing the dense production is akin to telling a woman that she looked gorgeous on her wedding day, if not for her dress. The songs and production goes hand in hand. If one falls short, then it hurts the overall product. Shanks production bleeds together making the individual instruments indecipherable. As I have recently listened to the latest Beatles remasters, I was struck by the warmth of the upgraded sound and not just hearing Paul McCartney's bass and Ringo's nuanced drum fills, but feeling them. None of that feeling is present here allowing for a foolhardy and infuriating listening experience. I can't tell if these were studio musicians brought in or the actual band. The engineer work and mixing done by Bob Rock from Slippery through Keep the Faith has never received its due, but the instruments jumped out at you and captured your imagination (think of the opening of "Lay Your Hands On Me" or the spiraling opener "I Believe" from KTF). The nuances that make their previous records indelible are largely missing and it's a blemish that hinders The Circle.
Bon Jovi's music is meant to be heard blazing down the highway of life where the windows are down, the wind blowing through your hair and you are have a smile imprinted on your face. It's the ultimate escape music and tugs at your heart strings with its over-the-top sentimentality and stadium-ready choruses. Their music is like an anti-depressant that lifts you when you most need it. You can't fault Bon Jovi for this. They do it better than anyone. It would be akin to chiding Paul McCartney for writing an ear fetching melody. The Circle does have some reach-for-the sky anthems, notably "Superman Tonight" which despite its unfortunate title features a driving combustion of sonic muscle paired with boy-meets-girl proclamations ("Who's going to save you when the stars fall from the sky?"). Bon Jovi lyrics on paper always come across as unadorned, but their enthusiasm is irrefutable and their ability to hook the audience is confounding. "Breathe in, breathe out" lyrics that are clichéd as they are mundane, but Bon Jovi finds a way to make them work on stratospheric "Brokenpromiseland". Sambora's vocal embellishments here (and on most of the record) provide one with a nostalgic sense of what has made Bon Jovi one of the most endearing acts of the last few decades. "Fast Cars" features a build-up that never quite delivers amidst a sold arrangement that could have used some strapping touch-ups. "Bullet" features some punching riffs by Sambora, "Thorn In My Side" features a biting lyric delivered with a nuanced vocal performance by Bon Jovi, one of the album's more dynamic cuts. "Love's The Only Rule" is pure magic set against a burning drum beat that drives the song (with a little lifting from the Kings of Leon's "woo-ooo-ooo" chorus of "Be Somebody"). Lacking originality or not, this song is an illustration of Bon Jovi at their best. Their ability to send your emotions soaring and to console your pain is unquestionable.
Despite all my qualms with the production, lyrics and sincerity of The Circle, I drop to my knees when I hear "When We Were Beautiful" and the album's closer, "Learn To Love". "Learn To Love" is a study in lightness and darkness where they "leave it all on the table". Contemplating the life cycle we all endure, it was one of the few occurrences on this record that I felt Sambora and Bon Jovi were looking ahead, facing their mortality and writing about something truly from within them. Grasping hold of our dreams, desires and our life, we control our openness to love and all too often turn away from love because it's easier to fold your cards and walk away rather than taking a chance. "Learn To Love" has a lamenting opening before a liberating sing-a-long chorus encompasses the song which will shake the foundations of stadiums in 2010 and bring back to Bic lighter with a vengeance. "When We Were Beautiful" is an audacious step forward for the band with its chiming musical progression. Not a ballad, and not a rocker, this song better defines Bon Jovi in 2009 than most of The Circle. As the band delivers the lyrics "The world is cracked, the sky is torn/ So much less meant so much more", you can discern the a sensation of solace overcome you the way a answered prayer might. Done by any other artist of merit, "When We Were Beautiful" would unquestionably be heralded as a poignant masterpiece of the state of the world. While the band proved to over-reach in their need to connect on The Circle, these two songs jolt out at you, enthrall your psyche and tug at your heartstrings. The band sound like a tsunami of emotion in their inconspicuous performances finding a perfect balance between innocence and comprehension. "When We Were Beautiful" isn't ostentatious but it echoes stronger than anything else on this record. The "sha-la-la" chorus is melancholic yet it feels triumphant as it seeps its way into not just your mind or body, but your soul. The irony is the declaration of "When We Were Beautiful" could have been more exultant if parallel themes weren't explored tediously elsewhere on the record. These two songs elevate The Circle and illustrate that Bon Jovi is a remarkable band, when they want to be, capable of making illustrious music.
The Circle will be a record that will warrant a deeper dissection further down the road, but my aggravation comes from the fact that it could have been so much more. One senses that in the hands of a more accomplished producer along the lines of Rick Rubin, Bob Rock or Peter Collins, they would have had the band refine the lyrics and in some cases, re-write the songs so that they came across as more than mere demos. I would rather hear an artist that tackles difficult subjects and reconciles internal demons rather than one who conforms to appealing to the widest audience possible. It's venerable, but the greatest music comes from within when artists bleed and their only way of fighting the pain is to create and not to conform. If I had a chance to interview the band, I would ask them what's more important; creating music that is timely or crafting songs and records that are timeless?
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com
CD Info and Links
Bon Jovi - The Circle