The past few years have been a bit torrid for Bon Jovi. The passive aggressive departure of longtime guitarist Richie Sambora, along with the not so amicable split with Mercury Records, their label for over 30 years, took their toll on main man Jon Bon Jovi. After a mini hiatus that saw a few solo forays in the live environment, he regrouped with his band mates to conceive their thirteenth studio album, This House Is Not for Sale.
The title track from last year’s Burning Bridges, a collection largely comprised of outtakes and leftovers, was indicative of the head space Jon was in around the writing of this record. There was an undercurrent of bitterness coursing through the otherwise buoyant sing-a-long; a defiant middle finger with a wry smile as Jon took aim at those who’d left him aggrieved. He had inferred that the sound of that record would run into This House Is Not for Sale, and in a way it does. Whilst it shares the same sort of lyrical ideals, it does so in a much more constructive manner. Despite all the negativity fuelling this record, it exudes a remarkable amount of positive energy. It seems that the band has taken the knocks and blows in their stride and turned them into positive inspiration. There’s a sense of accepting the past, embracing the inevitable and starting anew, from former fountain of youth Jon going grey gracefully to axe slinger Phil X and long time bassist Hugh McDonald being made official members of the band.
For all Jon’s talk of wanting this album to be the start of a new chapter, it is largely a continuation of the wheel he’s been spinning since his sophomore solo effort, 1997’s Destination Anywhere. Song-writing partners Billy Falcon and John Shanks, who have both been heavily involved with several of Bon Jovi’s most recent efforts, again leave their mark on the songs, with only four of the album’s 12 tracks absent of either’s input. Fans have been worried about Sambora’s absence (this is the first time he has not had a writing credit on a Bon Jovi album), but truth be told, he’s not missed too much, at least from a lead guitar perspective. The modern Bon Jovi records have left little room for him to let loose, merely allowing him to add some textures for aesthetic value (the same can also be said here, with only brief forays into solo territory for Phil X and Shanks). The lack of his vocals are a bit more conspicuous, leaving one to wonder how some of these songs might’ve sounded with his distinctive pipes backing Jon. The front man, whose voice has been diminishing in power and range recently, is generally in fine fettle, with only one or two notes prompting a minor struggle. He sounds greatly at ease, as if a heavy burden has been lifted, allowing him to pour out his soul with a smile on his face. David Bryan’s subtle keyboard work adds a great deal of depth here too, providing a warmth and vibrancy that greatly enhances the positive energy of the music.
The eponymous number kicks the album off with a chord structure that’s a bit too similar to the namesake song from 2005’s Have a Nice Day, leading to a standard Bon Jovi rocker with a massive chorus. It’s a problem that pops up a few times, with the opening plucks of “Reunion” evoking memories of 2007’s “Whole Lot of Leavin’”; likewise, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” when the tender ballad “Labor of Love” starts. “Living with the Ghost” follows the title track, briefly teasing a throwback to the ‘80s/early ‘90s with David Bryan’s dancing keyboards, before reverting to the safety of the modern rocker template. The adrenaline fused thunder of “Knockout” cranks things up a notch as Jon rolls up his sleeves, spoiling for a fight, whilst “The Devil’s in the Temple”, an ode to the villains of the piece (namely record execs), shows off the band’s heavier side. Promo single “Born Again Tomorrow” is one of the strongest songs here, with its thumping rhythms and melodies sounding like a mix between Bon Jovi and a dance anthem. The verses simmer along nicely before launching into a euphoric refrain; an absolutely fantastic song and proof that the band can still cover new ground whilst retaining their identity. It is one of a few moments where the band veer in a more pop-orientated direction; the other notable example being the bouncy chorus of “Roller Coaster”, which would be at home in many a modern pop song.
There’s a plethora of other catchy pop rockers in the form of “New Year’s Day”, “Reunion” (perhaps an olive branch to Mr. Sambora?) and “God Bless This Mess” (in which Jon recognises and owns his mistakes as he proudly exclaims “this mess is mine”). Whilst they’re not brilliant, they’re still well crafted, solid songs with memorable hooks that’ll be sure to please fans. Elsewhere, the acoustic “Scars on This Guitar” is an ode to the solace Jon finds in music; a therapy that allows him to face his demons head on. It’s not the first time he’s humanised his guitar (1995’s “My Guitar Lies Bleeding in My Arms”), but there is a great sincerity to the lyrical matter; it is evident that Jon appreciates the gift music provides. The song is a bit of a slow burner, but as it gradually unfolds its quality is revealed. “Come On Up to Our House” closes on a high note, a jovial, folky melody elegantly wrapping round the upbeat, acoustic driven excursion that invites us to share our stories and woes with the band, given we’ve just spent 50 minutes (or perhaps even 30+ years) hearing theirs.
Jon Bon Jovi had spoken about this album hopefully being another landmark release, pinpointing the importance of 1986’s Slippery When Wet, 1992’s Keep the Faith (following their first hiatus) and 2000’s Crush (following their second) in shaping their career. Whilst I don’t think it will have that sort of impact, it is certainly a strong record for a band whose output has been patchy since a stellar run of five albums earlier in their career (Slippery When Wet through Crush). Whilst it is not a massive departure for Bon Jovi, it sees them reinvigorated and ready to go, with one or two surprises showing they still have a few tricks up their sleeve yet. Not every song is a winner, but none of them is a loser either. With that in mind, This House Is Not for Sale can take its place with pride alongside Crush, Lost Highway and The Circle as another strong 21st century Bon Jovi record.
Rating: 8/10 – Bon Jovi prove there is life after Sambora.
Highlights: “Born Again Tomorrow”, “Scars on This Guitar”, “Come On Up to Our House”