As a self-proclaimed Bon Jovi obsessive, admitting that the band's latest album, Bounce, is anything less than a complete thrill is monumentally difficult. Especially considering that at one time in my life, I'd have been content to listen to Jon and Richie reading from a Vermont road map with Dave humming any random tune while Tico kept the beat kicking a table leg.
Bounce is not a bad album, yet the whole experience feels rushed. The rock hardly rocks, the ballads are flat, and the efforts at mature storytelling are sadly uninspired, and, often, utterly cheeseball. But, unlike other music critics who've taken the easy way out by attributing the unsatisfying album to the band being over-the-hill, I'm not so inclined to believe that after almost 20 years of repeated success, Bon Jovi is somehow suddenly incapable of creating good music.
Bounce's problem rests not in the music itself, or its post-9/11 themes, but its lack of focus. The album begins with a couple of pumpin' tracks honoring the victims of 9/11, before switching direction to present a bizarre tale of a mentally-challenged kid from Jersey, before switching back to 9/11, and then back to non-9/11-inspired tunes again. The band seems unsure as to what it's trying to do -- make a Bon Jovi record, or a 9/11 tribute album -- as it contains too many elements of each to be wholly considered either.
The typical Bon Jovi album contains one prevailing element: fun. It's impossible to listen to Slippery When Wet (1986) or New Jersey (1988) without wanting to hit the fridge for a pina colada. These Days (1996) exhibited a more serious side to the group (possibly having something to do with it being the first album released following the firing of guitarist Alec John Such) showing an intense maturity not seen on previous records yet hinted at on the solo releases of singer Jon Bon Jovi (Blaze of Glory, 1990) and lead guitarist Richie Sambora Stranger in this Town, (1991). But the fun side of the album still managed to show through. And, well, Crush was all about the happy.
Crush (2000) was a turning point for the band, and their fans, with the Bon Jovi of the new millennium emerging. The boys adopted an ultra-slick new look for the cover and inside sleeve embracing their positions as big-time, rockin' moneymakers exchanging their trademark tees-and-jeans for tuxedos and shades.
Everything on Crush worked, making for a rip-roaring, gut-pounding, happy-go-lucky album, with the guys lyrically and musically in top form. The album chronicled the band's journey to the highlife with fiery guitars underlining Jon's belting vocals, mixed with just the right amount of craftsmanship.
The band was not trying to prove itself to anyone, and the album was a true dedication to the fans who knew the band members' collective histories and were, therefore, able to nod knowingly when it was outlined on any of the tracks. We'd been there the whole time, and grown up with the boys, watching them develop in their own lives as we had in ours. "The skin I'm in is all right with me / It's not old / Just older," Jon sang, completely self-aware and unapologetic for any decisions made.
In the post-9/11 world, the boys obviously felt not only could they not get away with something so unabashedly optimistic as Crush, but also that they didn't want to. And, while there may only be four songs on the album directly inspired by 9/11, such thinking has left the whole thing with a decidedly bitter flavor, with the fun almost entirely gone.
The faith-keeping spirit running through the Bon Jovi catalogue like an unrepentant mantra is replaced with biting anger, inciting feelings of despair rather than deliverance. The opening moments of "Undivided", dedicated to the victims of 9/11 and their families, with its gutsy guitars and pounding drumbeat set the serious tone for the album. The song carries a simple sentiment, leaving behind any name-calling, finger-pointing and political rhetoric to concentrate solely on the rejuvenated American spirit. Similarly, first single, "Everyday" does much the same thing only on a more personal level. Thematically identical to past hits "It's My Life" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead", the song is upbeat and awesome, yet still delivered with acrimonious undertones. Jon's singing of lines like "I'm learning how to live my life / Learning how to pick my fights / Take my shots while I'm still burning" is delivered with less of the freedom-inspiring feel of those other songs (as well as 1992's excellent "I Believe"), sounding more like an outright threat. Jon retains this edge on the title track, singing "Call it karma / Call it luck / Me I just don't give a . . . " (c'mon boys, if you mean it, say it), with the remaining tracks on the album mainly mid-tempo also lacking the band's usual freewheeling charisma.
Bounce's ballads mean well but are nowhere near the standard of progressive classics like "Living in Sin" (New Jersey) or "Diamond Ring" (These Days). This is especially apparent when comparing the lackluster lyrics of "All About Lovin' You" ("For all the things I didn't do / For all the words I didn't say") and "You Had Me From Hello" ("You come to me and take my hand / We start dancing slow") to the heartbreaking, simplistic lyrics of "Silent Night" (7800 Degrees Fahrenheit, 1985) or "Bitter Wine" (These Days, 1995). With the exception of the elegant "Open All Night", Bounce's love songs have an overall forced, generic feel.
When Bounce does hit, however, it hits hard. "Misunderstood" and "The Distance" are perfect pop/rock tracks, with Jon's voice exploding on "Love Me Back to Life". Jon and Richie's storytelling is a good as ever on these tracks, with more blood on the needle and more skill in the execution. "Misunderstood", especially, allows Jon to do what he does best, being unafraid in the writing process to open himself up and publicly explore his emotional weaknesses.
This kind of effervescent storytelling so excellent on "Livin' on a Prayer", "Never Say Goodbye" and much of the These Days album, doesn't work so well on Bounce's weakest tracks, "Joey" and "Right Side of Wrong". The latter is a neat fairytale of a robbery gone wrong that loses its affect when you know the story's outcome. "Joey", about a childhood friend growing up in the old town, is overly long and while the chorus is a grabber, its appeal diminishes as well after the first few listens.
The album's highlight, however, is "Hook Me Up", one of those hidden gems that will remind any Bon Jovi fan of why they became addicted to the band in the first place. Like Keep the Faith's "Fear" and "If I Was Your Mother", These Days's "Damned" and "All I Want is Everything" or even Jersey's "Homebound Train", "Hook Me Up" (still another 9/11-inspired track), with its rough guitars, heavy beats and blistering energy, is a scream.
Bounce is by no means an instant classic, but regardless of its flaws, it's a welcome addition to the Bon Jovi collection. Jon's voice remains as crisp as ever, and his obvious sincerity and belief in what he's singing is unfailing. The production is top-notch with everything sounding modern, potent and strong. It's just a hard album to listen to, for the most part, with the constant reminder of September 11 pulsating through almost every beat.
But, like any dedicated fan, I know to keep the faith, even if, momentarily, Bon Jovi have lost theirs.