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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis