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Album Review

Thirty years.

That's how long it's been since Bon Jovi's third album, Slippery When Wet, topped the charts, eventually selling 28 million units worldwide. (That's almost exactly twice as many units as Taylor Swift's bestselling album, 1989, has sold since its 2014 release).

A lot of water's flowed under the bridge since then. The Berlin Wall fell; the internet was born. Jon's hair got shorter and greyer. And his longtime songwriting partner, Richie Sambora, decided there's more to life than never-ending world tours, taking leave of his New Jersey comrade. But through it all, Bon Jovi somehow survived.

The band's latest, This House Is Not for Sale, debuted at No. 1. (Try to imagine a Poison album debuting at No. 1 today, then come back when you're done laughing.) And the passage of time has not gone unnoticed for the man who once bragged, "I've seen a million faces, and I've rocked them all." Indeed, making peace with time's relentless march—both the past and the future—is the overarching theme Bon Jovi's 13th studio album.

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Pro-social Content

"This House Is Not for Sale" brims with Bon Jovi's trademark gritty optimism. The song admits things are hard ("These four walls have got a story to tell/The door is off the hinges, there's no wish in the well"). But don't confuse desperation with capitulation. There's none of that here: "I set each stone, and I hammered each nail/This house is not for sale/Where memories and dreams don't fail."

"Living With the Ghost" insists, "No future living in the past," perhaps a reference to Sambora's departure. Jon says he hasn't let yesterday's specters corner him ("I traded hurting for healing/ … Traded nightmares for dreaming/Go tell your shadows that I got out alive"). Another verse hints at spiritual cleansing: "Last night I had this dream/I saw a man wash his feet/In the church holy water." Then he adds, "Said I'm in over my head/He was crying, trying to get some relief/Lord, I'm just trying to get some relief/ … That man was me."

"Born Again Tomorrow" asks if you had a second chance at life, what would you do differently? "If you were born again tomorrow/Would you live your life like yesterday?" Bon Jovi exhorts people to move confidently into the future: "Stop waiting for a sign/Who's gonna live your life?/ … The future's looking brighter than a handful of stars." The song hints at God's love ("Heaven loves the brokenhearted") and echoes that old saw that whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger ("Bones grow stronger where they break").

"New Year's Day" looks forward to the tomorrow, again using spiritual jargon: "I'm singing hallelujah/Amen, the angels say/Let's hope tomorrow finds us/It's New Year's Day." And there's yet another backward/forward nod to time when Jon toasts both chronological directions: "For all of our tomorrows/And what was yesterday/I'm singing carpe diem."

"God Bless This Mess" talks honestly about the inherent chaos of life and asks for divine blessing: "God bless this mess, this mess is mine." "Reunion" counsels living fully today ("Write your song, sing along, love your life/Learn to laugh, dare to dance, touch the sky/ … Make this the best of the rest of your days") and perhaps alludes to a heavenly reconnection with friends and family ("I'll see you at the reunion").

"Labor of Love" says that building a home and a family is "a full-time job, the work's never done." But because of overflowing affection, it's not hard at all: "Baby, this ain't working, it's a labor of love." A "Roller Coaster" is the metaphor that Jon chooses to describe the adventure of a lifetime of love with someone. (He's been married to high school sweetheart Dorothea Hurley since 1989.) "Come on Up to Our House" opens the door to acceptance and hospitality.

"Knockout" encourages listeners to fight for what they believe in, challenging, "Did you really live your life?/Or did it pass you by?"

Objectionable Content

Jon Bon Jovi may be on the verge of getting his AARP membership (he's 54, and I'm sure he'll appreciate 10% discounts at Denny's next year), but he can still summon rock star naughtiness when he feels like it. On the underdog anthem "Knockout," he sings defiantly at critics, "I'll be giving you the finger."

"Labor of Love" gets suggestively steamy when Jon sings, "Sweet sweat's rolling down the middle of your spine/Bodies move together, perfect rhythm and time."

"God Bless This Mess" suggests a conflicted relationship with God: "Found God through sin, but this ain't my confession/I'll wait on Judgment Day/It's lose or win, got no need for protection/Stand up or out of my way." Likewise, "The Devil's in the Temple" could be heard as a repudiation of organized religion: "This was a church/A house full of prayer/It ain't that now/I could tear it down," Jon sings. He apparently impugns the character of its leaders ("There's thieves at the altar") and suggests that they're in league with the devil ("A snake wears the crown"). We also hear, "The Savior's come and gone, we're all out of time." Later he hints at a kind of metaphorical sexual abuse when he sings, oddly, "The devil's in the temple and he's making a mess/Got the Mona Lisa, got his hands up her dress."

"Reunion" flirts with relativism, asking, "Who's to say what's wrong or right/Right?"

Summary Advisory

Jon Bon Jovi once sang, "On a steel horse I ride." These days, retirement-age realities intrude: "My voice is shot, I'm going gray, these muscles all ache," he admits on "God Bless This Mess." But he's still going. Which is probably why he quickly puts the kibosh on any sympathy: "I'm smiling most of the time/ … These days I'm doing just fine."

It's refreshing to see an aging icon acknowledge the reality of getting older instead of frantically trying to deny it. Many of these songs pivot on the fulcrum of time, looking both backward and forward. But Jon and his band seem determined to press on resolutely, with no regrets about the past and filled with optimism regarding the future. They're passionate about faithfulness and family, and there's barely a whiff of hipster cynicism (save perhaps that one hand gesture) to be sniffed anywhere here.

Along that journey, there's quite a lot of spiritual stuff, too. Stuff about God and angels, the devil and church, sin and confession, heaven and reunions. At any given moment, Jon may lyrically embrace God … or hold Him and his people at arm's distance. It's a jarring, ambivalent mixture of attitudes (and something we've seen on previous albums). That said, Jon Bon Jovi is at the very least thinking about more serious things than Aqua Net, spandex and steel horses 30 years after he and his hair metal conquistadors conquered the world.

Plot Summary

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Debuted at No. 1.

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November 4, 2016

On Video

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Adam R. Holz

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