Bon Jovi Album Preview: 2020 Is Not For Sale (Yet)

Bon Jovi
David Bergman for Bon Jovi
– Bon Jovi

While Bon Jovi was delivering the music of the band’s latest release This House Is Not For Sale to fans around the world for the past three years, little did those fans know that front man and principal songwriter Jon Bon Jovi had the next powerful record percolating in his brain and, ultimately, pouring forth from his guitar. 

The songs of 2020, as the ambitious next album will be titled, are decidedly not something dashed off in hotel rooms and traveling between tour stops, but rather are evocative and insightful statements of the crazy times in which we live. While the new record, produced again by John Shanks, certainly contains the surging rock anthems and stirring ballads that have inspired fans for more than 30 years, Bon Jovi also reflects on parenthood and family (“Story Of Love”) and, perhaps more importantly, pushes himself and listeners with provocative songs on such topics as veteran suicides (“Unbroken”) and gun violence (“Lower The Flag”) that are reflective of today’s headlines. In total, 2020 is sure to be an impactful addition to the Bon Jovi canon, and evidence of an artist who continues to evolve as a songwriter and human being. Bon Jovi spoke at length with Pollstar about the new record and the artist choices he made – and is still making – in following up This House Is Not For Sale.
Pollstar: You did a lot of writing for the new record, a lot of it by yourself, and you did not play it safe, to say the least. A lot of artists at this stage of the game would just give people what they expect and want and are used to. But you come hard and you’re asking a lot out of your listeners to think, and you’re asking them to give a damn. That’s not what everybody would do at this point in the game.
Jon Bon Jovi: I’m not at all motivated by writing a pop song for the sake of monetary or commercial success. That has zero appeal to me. If I’m going to say something, then it has to be true to who I am at 57 years old. And these are interesting times we live in, so I did go out on a limb, yet I hoped that I didn’t really take sides, for the most part. I didn’t say “this is wrong and you’re wrong,” because that’s not really what the country’s going through, and I don’t want to be caught in that storm. But I did think that it was an honest place to write “Lower The Flag,” because who isn’t saddened when another mom or dad is running through the parking lot to hug their child, and thanking God that their child made it out? These are unbelievable times we live in, right? And so “Lower The Flag” came to me, and I’m very proud of this song. I would have never written a song like “Unbroken,” I would have never written any of these kinds of things, but I’m really proud that I did.
“Unbroken” is brave in the sense that you’re putting yourself out there for all kinds of criticism when you step into that role and speak for these brave soldiers, you not being a soldier or veteran yourself. You had to do it with complete authenticity, and if you didn’t, you were really opening yourself up to being a target. And you pulled it off lyrically and vocally, stepping into that character in a way that I haven’t heard you do a whole lot as far as being somebody else. You’re usually the “reliable narrator” in the song, that’s just the role you take as a singer. But, in this one, you’re that guy, and it’s almost like acting. You didn’t know how people would react. 
No. Absolutely not. I think I got myself sick over it, for fear of the reaction. Even though I was very confident in what I had done, you don’t know what the reaction is going to be. But, as you say, and I really appreciate, even when I was writing it, the reason why it just sounds like the guy is just hitting on one string of the guitar in the beginning of the song is that, I thought to myself, “This narrator or soldier, however you want to term him, isn’t a guitar player, he shouldn’t be picking something nice.”  He’s playing and he’s just sitting there with all of this heartfelt angst that’s coming out of him, and that’s why it has [imitates the sound of the guitar note]. That’s all he could do or say. And that’s how I wrote it. And I wouldn’t change that. In the studio we kept that urgency and so, yeah, I thank you for that. And it was a conscious effort after the last lyric not to go to the chorus and just leave it on and do it all again. That’s not a pop song, that’s just a story.
It could have gone disastrously wrong. I can tell you songs that do not work that are similar to [“Unbroken”] and you’d probably know them, and probably would agree. And with a song like “Lower The Flag,” when you go out in America, half your audience is going to feel one way and half is going to feel another way, pretty much depending on what part of the world you’re in.
But you don’t point a finger, you just say, “hey, let’s talk about it, let’s figure it out.” You don’t alienate anybody, and who can disagree with that? Because, if anything, what we need more than anything is calm, rational discussion instead of screaming and pointing fingers.
Yeah. There is no finger pointing. There is no super Red, gun, Second Amendment place that can look at any of those lyrics and say it’s negative to the gun contingent. And yet, as a human, let alone a parent, how can you not relate to the list of those towns, which are the places and those schools or the cities where these incidents happen or again, being the narrator and having the guy say to his co-worker, “lower the flag again.”
What inspired that? I understand just the news inspires it but then the way you came at it with the guy Joe and “lower the flag,” it brought some reality to it instead of just preaching.
Yeah. It was divine intervention, because I saw that Sunday morning, with [the] Dayton [shooting] and what had happened, and I just started strumming on the guitar, and it came and it came rather quickly over the course of maybe two days. I kept tweaking it, and I knew I had something. I was so proud of what I had but, I didn’t have a song title. I sat there and I said, “What the hell is the name of this song?” And I said, “It doesn’t really have a proper chorus,” and I was thinking of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” and telling a story. And I said, Okay well (singing) “Four dead in Ohio,” and then you go, “I guess that’s the name of this song.”  And then, when you really sit with that song, there is no second verse. (singing) “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” … that might be a great hook, but it’s not a verse. And when I wrote this, I was playing it for a bunch of people, Shanks was one of them. And I said, “I don’t know why Neil, who’s so poetic and prolific, didn’t write a second verse and instead went for that.” And Shanks was like, “That’s a great hook.” I go, “Well, this song isn’t about hooks, it’s about telling this story.” And then I still had no title. That’s when I put the last line repeating what the first line did, and I said, “There’s the title, ‘Lower The Flag,’” because that’s exactly what the whole thing is about.
Even that bridge was just so different for me, (singing), “If there’s something we can talk about, let’s talk about it.” And the rhythm of that melody was something that I’d written, I got it, I did it and went in the studio with it. I had everything completely finished, and I went in with (bassist) Hughie (McDonald) and [drummer] Tico [Torres], me and Shanks. And I was playing guitar, and I’m playing the guitar on the record, and Tico starts playing, and we said, “[the drum] is not helping, it’s hindering the progress of the song.” We said, this isn’t a drum song, this isn’t what this should be. And so he flew all the way to California and didn’t play on it, because we knew what we had lyrically and just wanted to tell the story

You definitely can feel you’re a parent on this record, too. It frequently surfaces in your work, one or two songs a record maybe; but I feel it here a lot. For example, “The Story of Love,” it’s not typical for you, it is thematically, but some of the vocals in it and the way it comes off, it’s outside of your normal way of doing things. And again, it makes me think, he was in This House Is Not For Sale world, and living there, and all wrapped up in it. The next thing I know, he’s got this whole other thing that’s just as intense and powerful and you seem just as committed. It just feels like yesterday we were all over the other thing but, this makes you forget about This House Is Not For Sale for a minute. It’s like a late career renaissance going on.
I hope so, that’s the goal. Every time we put out a record, every artist thinks that it’s going to be that next great renaissance.
You still have the “meat” on the new record, there’s still the stuff people would expect but, even then it’s certainly not phoned-in. With a song like “Beautiful Drug,” it feels familiar but, even then, I didn’t know where it was going to go. It’s still identifiably you, but it’s going to get people’s attention. This ain’t “Runaway,” not that there’s anything wrong with “Runaway,” but you’ve evolved a lot as a songwriter. Do you think people take you seriously enough in that regard? I don’t know that you get enough credit as a songwriter. 
Well, yeah, whatever. I don’t know how to defend that position other than, I’ve written a lot of hits over the years, so it is what it is, right? Maybe our commercial success hinders that sometimes. I don’t need to defend it any longer. I’ve done it for too long, at too high a level, and it’s just too good. Say what you want, it is what it is.