Love them or hate them, Bon Jovi has emerged as one of the most persistent and consistently successful rock bands of the last two decades. Ever since breaking onto the scene with its 1984 hit "Runaway," the Jersey-bred group has managed to continually keep pace with current musical and stylistic trends.
In their constant efforts to keep with the times, Bon Jovi thematically based their newest release, "Bounce," on the events of Sept. 11. A noble idea, indeed, but to be frank: Bon Jovi is no Bruce Springsteen. While fellow Garden Stater Springsteen made a career out of introspective, melancholy and often pessimistic lyrics, Bon Jovi was busy catering to pop culture. Consequently, Springsteen's recent Sept. 11-inspired release, "The Rising," came as part of a natural progression, while Bon Jovi's soaring arena-rock anthems fall short of dealing with issues as serious as a national tragedy.
While "Bounce" does contain some truly heartfelt substance, something about the record makes the listener feel as if the last 20 years of Bon Jovi have been largely shelved in favor of a despondent proclamation on the state of America. Bon Jovi has always been a band that could lift the spirits of its audience; what better time than now for a typically inspiring record from the band?
Nonetheless, much of the album becomes hopelessly bogged down in heavy guitar sludge and droning bass lines. The opening three tracks, for example, all subscribe to this method. The grinding minor riffs recall bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Skid Row -- a far cry from the pop-metal Bon Jovi has so effectively executed in the past.
The opening number, "Undivided," takes an immediate look at the recent tragedies. The song starts with: "That was my brother lost in the rubble/ That was my sister lost in the crush," and then continues on to "A million prayers to God above/ A million tears make an ocean of."
"Undivided," "Everyday" -- the first single off the album -- and "The Distance" all follow the same general formula: a tough, dark opening riff leading into an anthemic chorus. This first trio of songs comes off as overly ponderous, and they sorely lack the organic feel of many previous Bon Jovi hits.
"Joey," a piano-backed narrative about a kid who "was slow" and "couldn't read or write too well" doesn't really pull off folk-rock style storytelling, while the acoustic pop-rock of "Misunderstood" sounds fartoo much like Michelle Branch. At least, though, these tracks provide some necessary respite from the plodding rock of the previous tunes.
"Hook Me Up" again turns up the bass for another patriotic song sporting plaintive lyrical content. Jon Bon Jovi groans, "Save me, save me/ Hello, is there anybody out there?"
The Jon Bon Jovi-penned ballad "Right Side of Wrong" emerges as a highlight because of its refreshing subtlety. Featuring not much more than a piano and some restrained strings, the revealing tune shows some fine song craft from the lead vocalist. While such lyrics as, "Me and the wife,/ we need the money/ We got four kids all hungry" aren't entirely believable coming from Jon Bon Jovi, he manages to instill enough heart and sentiment to pull the song off well.
The final three tracks are vintage Bon Jovi, for better or for worse. "You Had Me From Hello" (the title lacking substantially in originality) is a gentle acoustic love song that assuredly will strike a chord in the same market of teenage girls who adorn their bedroom walls with Bon Jovi posters.
The title track sounds like it would have fit perfectly on Bon Jovi's last record, 2000's "Crush." In fact, it sounds a little too perfect for that album; the song is basically a rewrite of the band's hit "It's My Life." That said, it still provides a classic shout-along chorus that captures much of the group's arena rock intensity and vitality.
The album then comes to a rather timid conclusion with "Open All Night," which is really nothing more than a soft-rock number featuring Jon Bon Jovi's crooning vocal. It is more or less a toned-down version of the band's mid-'90s hit "Always."
All in all, Jon Bon Jovi's towering vocal sound combined with the blazing guitars of Richie Sambora combine for a naturally patriotic sound filled to the brink with machismo and clout.
Yet the band seems to be overstepping its boundaries with such a sombre statement. It is striking that besides maybe the title track, there are no outstanding pop singles on the album, which is in itself a major departure for the group. On top of this, the overall melancholy attitude of not only the lyrics but also, more prominently, the music, detracts far too much from the melodic nature of the band's repertoire.
While there are moments of excellence on the album, too many songs come off as formulaic, or at times even forced. Bon Jovi has never been known as a band that produced overly meditative and serious music, and there's a very good reason for that. As evidenced by this record, Bon Jovi should stick to their guns and make their musical statements through their typically outstanding song craft instead of through ponderous, brooding narratives.