The Circle is Bon Jovi's eleventh studio album and few do the melodic hard rock thing any better. A slight departure was taken with 2007's Lost Highway, as the band expanded its sound with country textures like pedal steel guitar, banjo, fiddle and duets with country artists LeeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich (the latter contributing to "We Got It Going On", surely one of the worst songs in Bon Jovi's catalog). The "Bon Jovi goes country" angle was widely overplayed by the media, as the band's root sound was still intact, just accented with some Nashville touches. The result was, in my opinion, one of the band's strongest yet. "(You Want To) Make A Memory", in particular, resonated with me - a more perfectly written, produced, and performed pop song you'll be hard-pressed to find.
Louder guitars and a more straightforward rock album were promised for their next release and The Circle doesn't disappoint. Here's a track-by-track review:
"We Weren't Born To Follow": The album's first single initially underwhelmed me, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Repeated listens subsequently revealed the song's attributes: a massive chorus (with concert-ready lines commanding "Let me hear you say yeah, yeah, yeah, oh yeah!") and the promised big guitars, including a nice delay effect that sounds like an influence from U2's The Edge. The song hits you right in the face immediately, so I'm stumped as to what it was I was missing on my first few listens. To be fair, guitarist Richie Sambora added a new guitar solo for the album version of the song, which definitely rips more than the version from the single that I first heard. Bookended by 80's style whammy bar divebombs, it's only fifteen seconds long but reinforces my opinion of Sambora as one of the most tasteful and underrated rock guitar players around. Lyrically, the song pays homage to those who pave their own road, though one wonders how much of it is self-referential. This is, after all, a band that has borrowed heavily from the Bruce Springsteen playbook, sometimes to the cringe-inducing point. Still, you have to give Bon Jovi huge respect for emerging from the 80s hard rock/hair band scene that imploded on literally all of their peers, while continuing to thrive as both a massive live draw and commercially viable entity in terms of new album sales.
"When We Were Beautiful": The lyrical territory of innocence lost is certainly familiar for Bon Jovi fans and this marks the first of several tracks on The Circle which refer to the theme. The repetitive themes Bon Jovi tends to cover are thankfully usually anchored by catchy music that elevates things to something more than just stale retreads. The spare guitar part at the song's beginning initially seems at odds, timing-wise, with singer Jon Bon Jovi's vocal delivery, but when drummer Tico Torres comes in with some booming floor toms and military style snare drum flourishes it ties everything together. It's the most epic sounding song on the album.
"Work For The Working Man": The song reworks the famous bass line and keyboard intro from "Livin' On A Prayer" for another ode to the plight of the working man...or rather, lack of work this time around, as the band strives to be topical. The "work!" shouts in the background are a nice touch.
"Superman Tonight": Arguably the strongest track on The Circle. To say this song is anthemic is an understatement - one can already see the live light show as it reflects the song's quiet-to-loud progression and the audience's fists in the air during the swelling chorus. It also contains my favourite lyric, as Bon Jovi references the semi-famous Superman logo ink on his arm ("You're looking for a hero, but it's just my old tattoo"). The positive energy jumping from the song seems tailor-made for a cinematic coupling, perhaps playing over the credits of Michael Bay's next popcorn flick atrocity.
"Bullet": JBJ asks the question, "What is the distance between a bullet and a gun?", which, quite frankly, I neither know the answer to nor really understand the question. Either way, this one falls somewhere in the middling range as far as quality and is the heaviest song on the album. Lyrically, it's the most socially conscious, even if only on a simplistic level ("How can someone take a life in the name of God and say it's right?/How does money lead to greed when there's still hungry mouths to feed?").
"Thorn In My Side": A solid uptempo rocker. Sambora and Bon Jovi can pretty much write this type of song in their sleep, which isn't necessarily a slight, just an honest statement that we've heard it before with different chord arrangements and slightly (but just slightly) different lyrics relating to taking your knocks and standing your ground (see "Undivided" and the title track from 2002's Bounce).
"Live Before You Die": The title pretty sums up what to expect. One of only two ballads on the album, it follows more of a linear storytelling structure a la Springsteen, which they've experimented with in the past (as on the similar sounding "Joey", also from the Bounce album and "Blood On Blood" from 1988's New Jersey). Still, it's a serviceable power ballad. I always enjoy when artists make lyrical references to their past work and here they name drop "(You Want To) Make A Memory" at the end of the second verse.
"Brokenpromiseland": Shame about the song title, but the song still rocks. Sambora's guitars shine again with more Edge-style dynamics.
"Love's The Only Rule": Another standout track, this one begins with a very un-Bon Jovi-like beginning that sounds more suited to a dance remix before coming back around to familiar territory with an uplifting chorus, and is then nicely balanced with a subdued bridge, before amping up once again towards the song's conclusion.
"Fast Cars": I hate to keep harping on the lyrics, but it's virtually unavoidable when you examine many of the words from these songs. The music here is unspectacular and the clunky cars-as-a-metaphor-for-life lyrical approach is simply amateurish. As I pondered in my review of KISS' recent Sonic Boom album, I'm amazed that seasoned songwriters can sometimes get so lazy.
"Happy Now": Great song, musically...the lyrics? Any more ragging on them would just be redundant.
"Learn To Love": It overcomes a lifeless intro that appears to present itself as a sappy ballad to build into something more uptempo, closing the album on a satisfying note.
The Circle is nothing more than another fine slab of Bon Jovi slickness, with much of the material demonstrating little growth musically or lyrically. And that's okay. Sure, most of the songs here would be completely interchangeable with anything they've recorded over the past decade, or even further back in some cases, but not every album or musical artist has to reinvent the wheel. While the end product has an assembly line feel, the songs still translate into a smile on your face and will please millions.