Unlike a lot of rock critics, I like Bon Jovi—and freely admit it. And when I haven’t liked them, my respect for them has carried me through until they delivered another perfect pop nugget like “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” that sent me on another pro-Bon Jovi wave.
 
For more than 25 years, Bon Jovi has been entertaining millions upon millions of fans—and they’ve earned every one of them. They write populist themes with broad appeal and deliver live in a way that few acts can; plus their work ethic is staggering.  When their popularity has sagged in the U.S. (outside of their native New Jersey, of course), their legions of fans worldwide have propelled them. They’re one of the top concert draws in the world, rivaling U2 and Madonna and the Rolling Stones.
 
On the John Shanks-produced “The Circle,” a much more rock oriented record than its predecessor, 2007’s “Lost Highway,” Bon Jovi is trying to please both the longtime fans with its usual stadium anthems, like first single, “We Weren’t Born to Follow” (which the band played at the 20th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall) and the lazy, written in-our-sleep  “Work for the Working Man,” while attempting to continue to reinvent itself as proof of its relevancy.
 
It’s a luxury problem to have, but for any band with the stature and longevity of a Bon Jovi, the challenge is how to compete with your own history. Can there ever be another “Wanted Dead or Alive” or “You Give Love a Bad Name?” The aforementioned “Who Says,” released to radio in 2006, garnered the band its first ever Grammy and was a huge hit (including a No. 1 country smash), so it can definitely be done.
 
However, the songs that soar on “The Circle” aren’t the obvious choices like “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” but smaller gems like “When We Were Beautiful,” which is one of the most interesting, layered songs the band, not known for its subtleties, has ever recorded. The tune shares its name with a documentary about the band filmed during its 2007 tour. It’s a beauty, full of ringing guitars, evocative lyrics, and a sing-along chorus redolent of, believe it or not, The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town.”   “Thorn in My Side” rattles along as a fine battle cry for never giving up. Even though it’s not new territory for the band, its chorus is one of the catchiest that Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora, whose guitar solos are front and center on almost every song here,  have written in years.

The band is less successful when it tries to make a socio-political commentary on anything other than its tried-and-true, blue-collar, working man themes. “Bullet,” for its driving beat, doesn’t succeed as Jon Bon Jovi asks “what is the distance between a bullet and a gun/God are you listening or have you just given up?” as he catalogs society’s woes.  
 
Sometimes a great pop song is born from a cliché, but in a few cases here, the clichés just sound like trite homilies, such as on “Live Before You Die.” The song begins with promise—it’s the rare tune with Jon Bon Jovi singing in first person—but succumbs to platitudes. Same with “Love’s the Only Rule” (Am I crazy, but can you hear Neil Diamond doing that song?). The latter is redeemed by its “Oh, Oh, Oh” chorus that could become a concert staple.
 
To Bon Jovi’s credit, the band isn’t trying to capture past glory or grab a younger audience—as it tried to do with “It’s My Life.” In fact, it addresses living in the present and dealing with the current hand you’ve been dealt on “Fast Cars.” Like many of songs here, there’s a big chorus to go with the big life themes, but it’s a nice metaphor, well delivered. Similarly, album closer, mid-tempo “Learn to Love,” reminds us, “you’ve got to learn to love the world you’re living in.”  With its big drums (think a Steve Lillywhite production) and Jon Bon Jovi’s impassioned vocals, it’s a nice send-off back into the world.