Trick question: Which decade has been Bon Jovi’s most successful? If album sales are the sole measuring stick, then the 1980s were surely the band’s high-water mark. But by another measure, sheer productivity, the ’00s have been Jon and Co.’s most successful 10-year-span.
The Circle marks their fifth studio album since Y2K. It also marks their return to rock after a foray into country on 2007’s Lost Highway.
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As has been the case throughout this decade, gritty optimism rules on Bon Jovi’s latest set of arena-ready anthems. The Circle’s first single, "We Weren’t Born to Follow," advises, "When life is a bitter pill to swallow/You got to hold on to what you believe." That sentiment—life is hard, but soldier on anyway—could serve as a thesis statement for this album. "There’s hope, I know/Out on that open road," Jon sings on "Brokenpromiseland." More of the same shows up on "Love’s the Only Rule" ("Sometimes you got to lose to win"). With love’s help, neither "pouring rain" nor "hurricane" nor "wrecking ball" can derail our lives. Want some more? On "Happy Now," the sentiment goes like this: "Been down on my knees/I learned how to bleed/I’m turning my world around."
Speaking of being on one’s knees, we also hear quite a few references to faith, forgiveness and love. "Bullet" condemns greed, war and religiously motivated violence ("How can someone take a life/In the name of God and say it’s right?") before saying, "We need forgiveness/We all need a lot of love/We need some hope"). "Thorn in My Side" alludes to 2 Corinthians 12:7 ("You can test my faith"). "Work for the Working Man" finds a struggling blue-collar worker insisting, "With the grace of God I’ll get us through." The song also acknowledges the reality of the Genesis 3 curse. Jon contemplates the right response to failure by saying, "On the steps of decision/It’s revenge or forgiveness" ("Learn to Love"). Elsewhere in that track he mentions death and judgment ("Halle halle/We’re one breath away/Halle halle/From our judgment day").
Other positive themes repeated throughout The Circle’s 12 tracks include making the most of every moment, restoring lost innocence, and admitting your mistakes.
As he ponders the victims of violence on "Bullet," Jon seems to impugn God’s character by asking, "God, are You listening?/Or have You just given up?" That song also perhaps suggests prayer is futile ("I’ll learn to pray/But it’s too late now"). Supernatural aid gets rejected again on "Superman Tonight" ("If somebody sent you/An angel to save you/What would you tell him?/ … That life is just a lie/That heaven don’t exist").
Other isolated problems include a romanticized remembrance of teen sex ("Live Before You Die") a nod toward of rebellious driving ("Fast Cars") and a couple uses of "d‑‑n."
Jon Bon Jovi wrote in the band’s blog that the characters in The Circle’s songs "don’t always like what they see, [but] they try hard not to see the cup as half empty." Lyrically speaking, I would say the band’s 11th effort is about three-fourths full. Positive themes about faith and determination dominate. Clearly, the boys from Jersey are still "Livin’ on a Prayer" 22 years after the ballad of Tommy and Gina’s travails topped the charts.
Having said that, though, they’re also harboring some lingering suspicions about God’s character (a theme that has also shown up on previous efforts). At times the band hints that we’re better off trusting ourselves than a fickle deity who may or may not respond to our prayers.
Which one of these conflicting messages comes through most clearly generally comes down to the track you happen to be listening to.