The second phase of Bon Jovi's career started inauspiciously as longtime bassist Alec John Such exited the group. While they had maintained a healthy chunk of their fanbase with Keep The Faith, the more the 90's wore on the more hair bands struggled. These bands struggled for legitmacy, trying to work in darkness and bitterness often by cannibalizing their lineups (like a Vince Neil-less Motley Crue, or a Jani Lane-less Warrant) alienating their dwindling fanbase to try appealing to an indifferent Generation X. It was in this atmosphere that Bon Jovi released the kickin' "Good Guys Don't Always Wear White" for The Cowboy Way soundtrack. As good as this stomping rocker was (I liked it a lot) it didn't really advance the career. But it was a good lead in to the next album.
These Days (1995)
Keep The Faith recapitulated the band as more of a rootsy Arena rock band (an oxymoron if there was one) with hints of Alternative rock to stay with the times. But the songwriting was a bit spotty, or at least not always memorable. These Days took it all to the next level. The songs were appropriately 90's downers with titles like "My Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Arms" or "Lie To Me" yet the spirit and musicianship is so high that it is one of the band's strongest efforts. In terms of performance, originality, depth and creativity this is the best of the Bon Jovi albums. The addition of permanent sideman Hugh McDonald on bass instantly livens things up with muscular grooves and high end notes that didn't exist with Such. And Richie Sambora is absolutely on fire, freed from shredding he delivers crisp gritty guitarwork as on the opener "Hey God". Their roots rock approach truly gels coming up with heat on rockers like "Damned". Despite their best efforts, the marketplace shrugged their shoulders and the best Bon Jovi could do was score some minor hits with the soulful "This Ain't A Love Song" and the jaunty "Something For The Pain". What could anyone say, it was a recession and Bon Jovi had been lumped with the other hair bands as Reagan era relics. Needless to say the band seemed discouraged by this album's performance since they haven't gone near this sound since then. Too bad, it's my favorite Bon Jovi album once you get past the big two (Slippery When Wet and New Jersey).
Destination Anywhere (1997)
The second Jon Bon Jovi solo album didn't do much to change his commercial fortunes and since I've never heard this I can't say if it's good or bad. I did hear the single "Midnight In Chelsea" which was OK. Tonight a played a few tracks off this album, it has that generic late 90's pop sound to it with the shimmering effects and shuffling electronic beat. At this point JBJ was getting known for his acting, turning in good performances on tv and film including I think it was Ally McBeal. The break in the action also gave the band a chance to reboot itself for the new millenium.
Going in Bon Jovi as a band was at their lowest point of visability since 7800 Fahrenheit. A savvy team up with teen pop Producer Max Martin changed the game, as he gave a spiffy high tech sheen to the "Livin' On A Prayer" rewrite "It's My Life". One of the most pivitol songs in Bon Jovi's history, "It's My Life" was a monster smash and caused the public to reassess the group as living legends.
The album in turn was also successful, a mixed blessing to me because once I got past "It's My Life" I had to fish for other things to like about the project. There was "Just Older" a sturdy pop rocker with some of that rootsy flair and great lyrics about aging gracefully. "Next 100 Years" ripped hard like a cross between "Freebird" and The Beatles. "Thank You For Loving Me" effectively updated the power ballad while "One Wild Night" had some of the freewheeling party anthem 'tude of Slippery era Bon Jovi.
Yet there was so much crap on this record that even today I had a hard time sitting through it. They try hard to open up their sound to adopt the modern pop sounds of the day. Crush started a trend in Bon Jovi's songwriting where it seemed like he wrote along to whatever was on the radio as "Two Story Town" knocked off Melissa Etheridge's "Angels Will Fall" and "I Got The Girl" mimicked the theme song to tv's Friends. A deliberate pop approach and a sprinkling of extra Beatles touches shoots through the whole piece. Then a heaping helping of soft focus dewey ballads to finish the job. It's their most toothless album, particularly when you hit junk like the silly slow song "Save The World". One of my least favorite Bon Jovi albums, though a big plus for their career. After "It's My Life" Bon Jovi would never be counted out by the media again.
To date, this was the last full Bon Jovi album I've gotten (though I heard other ones after). Written as the band's response to 9/11 as seen through glitzy Hollywood eyes, they showed focus in both songwriting and performance here. Too bad they couldn't come up with anything as magic as "It's My Life" yet at the same time this album was consistent in providing modest enjoyment. The title track is a stunner of Arena Rock awesomeness, easily my favorite Bon Jovi song of the 21st Century. A driving groove and big gestures a plenty go a long way with me. They seemed determined to rock this time out and came up with good stuff like "Hook Me Up" or "Undivided" that effectively updated their classic sound to present.
That's not to say there isn't holes. JBJ continued to copy too much from the radio, channeling Elton John's "Levon" into "Joey" or xeroxing The Calling's "Wherever You Will Go" to his "Misunderstood". And the ballads seemed a little slighter this time out which is saying a lot considering the lack of quality control Bon Jovi started showing on these things in the mid 90's. "All About Lovin' You" is the best of the bunch, just that phrase "I'm all about..." reminds me more of loving a plate of cheesy nachos or something other than a girl. I'm all about lovin' cheesy nachos!
And the Hollywood connection seemed to get flaunted a bit, the closing track "Open All Night" was inspired by JBJ's character on Ally McBeal. "You Had Me At Hello" misfires in it's attempt to appropriate a Tom Cruise movie catch phrase. And Bounce had the same title as a Ben Affleck / Gwyneth Paltrow film. And as any major dude will tell you, Ben Affleck = bye bye legitimacy. In the end Bounce is a decent rock record with some good moments that seems even better if you don't look to hard at it and just enjoy the ride.
Have A Nice Day (2005)
Now it gets tough to give a full review of these albums that follow because I heard them but didn't get them. The lead single title cut was OK, it was similar but a touch better than Bounce's first release "Everyday". While most of the album rocks hard, it is with a definite ear towards modern pop rock eschewing most of their classic sonics. Meaning it's hard to distinguish this album from something by, say, 3 Doors Down. Maybe it was for the best that the best tune was a Country rockin' duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles called "Who Says You Can't Go Home". Simultaneously putting the band on the Country charts, giving promotion to habitat for humanity and giving Home Depots across the nation something juicy for in store play pushed the group back to the forefront of pop again.
Lost Highway (2007)
Remember the lesson: Jon Bon Jovi is a marketing genius. From the moment he changed his last name from...what was it...Biongiovi? to Bon Jovi, he's had his finger on the pulse of middle America. And after seeing probably a lot of CMT Crossroads, Bon Jovi decided it was time to go modern Country. I played this online a few times while it was streaming for free and mostly got little out of it. The first song to be released, "You Want To Make A Memory" struck me as similar to one of those slow Alison Krauss ballads except with a less capable singer (cause Alison Krauss kicks ass!). Second single "Lost Highway" seemed like a lighter take on "Who Says You Can't Go Home" with less juice. And a duet with Leann Rimes on "Til We Ain't Strangers Anymore" tries to be sexy but is ultimately heatless. I have no idea how this fared commercially because I really lost interest and the album seemed overshadowed by Richie Sambora's antics anyway. Sambora was all over the tabloids allegedly drunk off his ass and banging ex-starlets left and right. Was it all true? Probably some of it, in any case watching a potential Sambora flame out was more interesting than anything I heard from Lost Highway. I can't say it was bad, I just felt indifferent.
This brings us full, uh, circle with the pending release of Bon Jovi's new album The Circle. Will JBJ let it rock? Let it roll? The single "We Weren't Born To Follow" has my hopes up. If you would like to hear it with a ton of extra echo, click below!