Bon Jovi, <em>Lost Highway</em>

Bon Jovi
Lost Highway

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Bon Jovi has made a country album. Sort of. They’ve been backpedaling the notion that this is actually a country record in recent press, after teasing that they’d switched genres for more than a year. They even went so far as to speak at this year’s Country Radio Seminar. They’re doing the right thing by backpedaling, though. Not only does very little of this album resemble even the most pop/rock-flavored country, the overwhelming mediocrity of the material violates the most important cardinal rule of country music: it’s the song, not the singer, that matters.

This album is all about the singer and the band. Anybody with even a cursory familiarity of Bon Jovi has heard all of this before. The New Jersey arena rock bleeds through all of the uptempo rave-ups. Sure, “We’ve Got it Going On” is a retread of earlier “don’t mess with me” anthems like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “It’s My Life”, but youthful defiance is supposed to eventually mature into reflective wisdom, and there’s something unseemly about a middle-aged man angrily insisting that he’s going to do whatever he wants to do, and the world won’t keep him down. Let’s have a reality check: when you are a multi-millionaire forty-something rock star who sings power ballads, you’ve already beaten the system. You’re no longer an outsider looking in. Singing as if you are sounds immediately false. It would be like John Anderson recording “I’m Just an Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)” on his most recent album.

When not imploring us to “shake your money makers” and “smoke if you got it”, Bon Jovi actually take an occasional stab at being reflective, as on the title track and “Everybody’s Broken”, but the insights don’t get much deeper than “life changes just like the weather”, and “it’s all right, it’s just life.” Then there are the countless big ballads in the vein of “Bed of Roses” and “I’ll Be There For You”, but with those classic titles already taken, we get the far more tepid come-on line “You Want to Make a Memory” and a request that the girl save him a “Seat Next to You.” In a nice nod to the histrionics of country music, the latter song does imply that if she dies first, he wants her to save him a seat in heaven.

One of the tracks that works pretty well is “‘Til We’re Not Strangers Anymore.” The song itself is as bland as the ones surrounding it, but it soars when guest vocalist LeAnn Rimes takes control. It’s a reminder that the only reason “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” worked so well is that Jennifer Nettles sang the hell out of it; even the pop stations spun the duet version that was intended for country radio only. You simply need a damn good singer to sell lines like “I hijacked a rainbow and crashed into a pot of gold.”

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I have a low tolerance for acts that simply phone it in. I’m not so much offended that they chose to make a pseudo-country album as I am the fact that they didn’t feel a need to step up their game as songwriters and musicians. Hell, Bob Dylan didn’t screw around when he took his stab at the genre with Nashville Skyline back in 1969; country-rock bands are still covering “Lay Lady Lay” and “I Threw it All Away.” Bon Jovi just recorded the same album they’ve been making for the last fifteen years and added a banjo here and there. What a wasted opportunity.

Buy: Lost Highway