Reviewed: What About Now by Bon Jovi

Hair apparent.

What About Now (Island Records)
Bon Jovi

Here’s a bit of fun: which of the following are US presidential campaign slogans and which are songs by Bon Jovi? Something to Believe in. Believe in America. Made in America. Another Reason to Believe. A Stronger America. Forward. Undivided. The Distance. Change. Taking it Back. Bring it On. We Can Do Better. Yes We Can. Because We Can. What About Now. (Answers below.)

Great stadium rock employs the same nebulous, inspirational vocab as politics, which is why rock stars so often find their songs used on the election trail without their consent. The most famous case was Springsteen, whose “Born in the USA”, stripped of irony, was nicked by Reagan in 1984. John McCain hijacked Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and in 2008 came to blows with Jon Bon Jovi after “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” (“These are my streets, the only life I’ve ever known”) became a Sarah Palin theme tune. So many of American rock’s golden values – patriotism, homecoming, the rugged individual looking out for his wife, kids and backyard – feed the conservative sentiment. That’s why people like Springsteen and Bon Jovi, while exploiting the full reach of their lyrical abstractions, go to lengths to state their Democratic loyalties. You also get the feeling that, having reached a certain vintage, they wish to reassert their “usefulness” to the world.

Bon Jovi’s new single (“Because We Can”) could be an Obama slogan and the theme of the album, he explained at a recent press conference, rubbing his eyes, is “the post firstterm Obama administration in America. The new normal, the consolidation of businesses and the beginning of a new economic upturn – the inspiration is out there every day . . .” When asked why he chose to release it now, he added, “The moment in time almost forced the record to come out because otherwise time passes and the record becomes aged.” Which from where I’m sitting sounds an awful lot like “We’ve written some more songs and decided it was time for an album.”

Jovi and his writing partner, Richie Sambora, are masters of a certain kind of musical euphoria best summed up by “Livin’ on a Prayer”, a fist-pumping delight of a song that still makes your hair stand on end 27 years after its release, wishing you were a hard-bitten waitress working in a smoke-belching east coast industrial town in the mid-1980s. They have a truly magical capacity for activating great feeling by saying very little. You can’t help but think they’ve got a job on their hands assessing the consolidation of businesses as well as the romance of the human spirit.

There’s an actual lyric here that goes: “If I’d robbed a bank, you wouldn’t care/You’d come sit on my lap in the electric chair/And when they’d flip the switch/We’d just kiss.” (from the you-and-me-against-the-world anthem “Army of One”). Springsteen’s 2011 single “We Take Care of Our Own” was an ironic examination of American small-town small-mindedness, people’s unwillingness to help one another when, as Bon Jovi might say, the chips are down. What About Now lacks such nuances – which is no surprise – though with fewer of their signature rousing choruses and guitar solos, and most of the songs chugging by on an MOR setting, it asks you to pay attention to the words.

“What’s Left of Me” is the most original “protest” song, if you can call it that: where you’d expect tales of the abandoned steel works you get the print-media crisis (“for 30- odd years I was a newspaper man. . . /God I miss the smell of paper and the ink on my hands”) and there’s even a punk band complaining their entire income comes from merchandise. But the desperate “Room at the End of the World” reminds you of those people who hide out in the woods with weapons and tins of food. There’s something in the spirit of this album that fails to capture the everyman, only the individual, edging towards conservatism rather than compassion, when you know the exact opposite was intended.

Hair metal, classic rock – whatever you want to call it – has had a bit of a reassessment in the past few years with the Rock of Ages musical and arena tours of many of the great 1980s bands: we’re starting to value the craftsmanship of those songs referred to, boringly, as the “guilty pleasures”. The magical formula, as evidenced by, say, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, or “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake is about 50 per cent tune, 48 per cent slogan and 2 per cent meaning. If, as the new album suggests, Bon Jovi are in any way concerned about their “usefulness” to planet earth after 30 years on the road, they should remember they are a force of stability in the music world, a collection of great hair that still stands full and erect, leathery faces still keeping their noble shape, and lyrical clichés that age like fine wine. They are public servants mobilising vast crowds and infusing John Doe with inspirational sentiment. And that’s more than enough.

(Answers: Bon Jovi; Mitt Romney; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi; John Kerry; Barack Obama; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi; Obama; Bon Jovi; Kerry; J F Kennedy; Obama; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi.).

Bon Jovi. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle