Photo Credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage
“Livin’ On A Prayer” was its own global mantra throughout 2020, its lyrics still bitingly relevant as income disparity grows and essential workers find themselves in the shoes of Tommy and Gina, showing up for work while dreaming of something different. Jon Bon Jovi’s actual idea of 2020, however, is a little more maddening and a lot less relevant. With all the subtlety of Cirque du Soleil show, Bon Jovi named their fifteenth studio LP 2020 and stuffed it with country rock anthems about barely getting by.
Another album delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was pushed back enough for Bon Jovi to contribute additional songs to its track list. “Do What You Can” was written in quarantine as a tribute to the working class doing what they do best – simply, what they can. The robust song hinges around the hook, “When you can’t do what you do, you do what you can” – a tried-and-true American motto if there was one – and a repetitive guitar riff, while finding increasingly uncomfortable ways to slip in COVID buzzwords.
For example: “Tonight they’re shutting down the borders // And they boarded up the schools”; “As we wave outside the window // Older loved ones stay inside”; “The chicken farm from Arkansas // Bought workers PPE // Not before 500 more // Had succumbed to this disease” and many, many, many more, referencing bills due, stimulus checks, the Central Park makeshift hospital, and the lights darkening on Broadway. This is but one song, but it sets such a sour tone for the record that it’s difficult to recover, especially after Jennifer Nettles jumps on the reissue.
“American Reckoning” was also written in quarantine, this time in response to George Floyd’s death. The old adage attests to not saying anything if you have nothing nice to say, but sometimes there’s wisdom in holding your tongue even if you mean well. “America’s on fire” is one hell of a way to begin a song that’s not about the record forest fires raging across the country, and this isn’t the only metaphor that Bon Jovi bungles in this on-the-nose track dripping in white guilt. Other lines misread the room tremendously, like, “Goddamn those eight, long minutes,” where Bon Jovi cries foul from his penthouse as he laments the incivility on the streets and wonders why we can’t all get along. The song never really amounts to a climax, a disservice to the fiery protests the song hopes to backdrop. If nothing else, may 2020 become an example to established rock icons (especially white, male ones) in how not to pander to marginalized communities.
Elsewhere, the tone-deaf album sounds exactly like a modern Bon Jovi album – heavily influenced by mainstream country radio and full of ABCB rhyme schemes. “Beautiful Drug” glorifies the healing benefits of love – but begins with the line, “Tear off your mask, no need to hide // There’s a prescription no doctor can prescribe.” After a little talk of fever and ambulances, there’s no further mention of medical ailments and the song detours to paint general imagery about love “setting free”, being “all we need”, and so-on. It trips over itself so many times that despite the repetitive refrain, determining what the song is really about is not too easy.
Bon Jovi tell stories as literally as they can – plain and simple, cut to the chase. In their eyes, 2020 is a reflection of the collective, objective awfulness of this year, ground up, chewed, and spit out to no longer resemble many of the lessons we all stood to learn. As a storyteller, Jon Bon Jovi sells his stuff with a committed seriousness, his trademark snarl underlining everything. The writing throughout 2020 is flimsy enough to cast that snarl as sarcastic or unassuming – we’re still not forgiving that mention of PPE – but the Bon Jovi character that is so well-loved does indeed shine through, even in the weakest moments. That’s the best part about having a knack for storytelling – even when the story sucks, someone’s bound to listen.