New Jersey natives Bon Jovi are one of the most successful rock bands in history, with a storied 35 year career seeing worldwide sales of over 100 million albums and countless headline shows in arenas and stadiums around the globe. With their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 14th in mind, Midlands Metalheads reviewer Kevin McDonald takes a look at their catalogue and gives his thoughts on the highs and lows of their discography.
Bon Jovi (1984)
It’s a tall order to get everything right at the first time of asking, but Bon Jovi still gave a good account of themselves on their self titled debut. There was still room for growth in the song writing department, and Jon’s vocals had a little way to go, but it was a solid start to their career nonetheless. Opener “Runaway” is a fan favourite all these years later, with Jon’s fledgling partnership with Richie Sambora already showing promise on the likes of “Roulette” and “Burning for Love”. “She Don’t Know Me” is a unique entry in the Bon Jovi catalogue, as the only original song (to my knowledge) to not have a credit attributed to Jon. It’s quite a good song, but the hook doesn’t hit the mark, and that encapsulates the major issue with the record: it nearly, but never does, reach the level it aims for. It’s mildly frustrating in that regard, but as a first try, you can’t really fault it too much.
7800° Fahrenheit (1985)
Much like their debut a year before, Bon Jovi’s second album is an exercise in unfulfilled potential. There’s a requisite competency about the group’s glam infused rock, and performance wise there’s not much to critique, but again the song writing comes up a little short. It’s a more uneven record than Bon Jovi, with some fantastic tracks (“In and Out of Love”, “The Price of Love”, “Always Run to You”) undermined by some below par cuts (“Only Lonely”, “Silent Night”, “King of the Mountain”). Still, the highlights showed that the group were becoming stronger composers, and under the right guidance, they would (and subsequently did) produce better material. Worth checking out for three or four songs, but overall, one for completists only.
Slippery When Wet (1986)
After two fair efforts, Bon Jovi hit the big time with their third album. Enlisting the song writing talents of Desmond Child, they were finally able to craft music that matched their lofty ambitions. Whilst the album is remembered for the trio of ’80s classics it produced (“Livin’ on a Prayer”, “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Wanted Dead or Alive”), it has a number of deep cuts that are not to be overlooked. “Without Love” and “Never Say Goodbye” are every bit as good as their more well known ballads, “Raise Your Hands” and “Wild in the Streets” are upbeat, energetic anthems, whereas “I’d Die for You” puts a more serious spin on proceedings. Slippery When Wet shot Bon Jovi to super stardom, and remains their most commercially successful album to this day. It was also the start of a run of brilliant albums that justifies their place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
New Jersey (1988)
With Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi proved they could mix it with the commercial heavyweights at the time. With New Jersey, they had to prove they belonged and weren’t merely a flash in the pan. I’m not sure whether they thrived on this pressure, but they managed to create an album that not only matched its predecessor, but surpassed it. Slippery only hinted at a confidence that Bon Jovi exude here. Everything feels bigger and bolder. Slippery was made for arenas, but New Jersey was made for stadiums. Every single drop of creative juice is squeezed out of these songs, making for an album with one great song after another. I have my personal favourites, but to pick out a selection of key tracks would be a disservice to the consistency of the record. Undoubtedly one of the pinnacles of the glam metal movement, this is essential listening for anyone with even just a passing interest in Bon Jovi.
Keep the Faith (1992)
After a hiatus in the early ’90s that yielded two solo albums, Bon Jovi reconvened to start work on their fifth album, Keep the Faith, early in 1992. The musical landscape had changed since New Jersey had topped the charts, with hair metal in its dying throes as grunge was becoming the latest rock phenomenon. Under the watchful eye of producer Bob Rock, Jon and co veered in a more hard rock direction, resulting in their most mature and accomplished work at the time. Whilst there are glimpses of the glitz and glam of their past (“I Believe” and “I Want You”), they’re still more rooted in traditional rock than hair metal. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is a four minute jaunt of good time rock ‘n’ roll, with “Fear” and “If I Was Your Mother” serving up some tasty riff action. A good number of songs remain popular with fans, including the title track, “In These Arms” and “Bed of Roses”, as well as “Dry County”; a staggering, nine minute epic complete with one of the greatest solos you’ll ever hear. With Keep the Faith, Bon Jovi needed to grow, and in doing so, they created a superb record that still sounds great today.
These Days (1995)
The group’s sixth record, These Days, continued in the direction hinted at on Keep the Faith, but further stripped away the veneer, showcasing the band at their most abrasive. There’s a real sense of vulnerability and darkness about the music that had only been hinted at previously, tying in to the generally bleaker overview of the lyrics. Jon turns in his most accomplished vocals to date, and although it’s not as pretty and polished as years gone by, it helps to emphasise the message he’s putting across (just listen to the way he tears through “Something to Believe In”). “Hey God” and “These Days” stand tall amongst the hard rock set, whilst “Hearts Breaking Even” shows there was still a soft core under the stiffened facade. Every bit as good as Keep the Faith three years prior, you’d be hard pressed to find a weak link on These Days, affirming their ’90s output as their best overall.
A new century, a new Bon Jovi. Taking cues from Jon’s 1997 solo effort Destination Anywhere, Crush saw the group eschew the sprawling compositions of the ’90s and embrace a leaner, mainstream rock sound. Spurred on by the success of hit single “It’s My Life”, the album introduced Bon Jovi to a new generation and showed they were still relevant, despite a five year absence. Sambora doesn’t get to let loose much (the end of “Next 100 Years” the major exception), instead interjecting with some tasteful leads and brief solo passages (that melody in “Captain Crash…” is irresistible). Other highlights include “Two Story Town”, “Just Older” and “Say It Isn’t So”, the latter two of which are notable for being among the first co-writing credits Billy Falcon received with the band. One of the more consistent records of the modern Bon Jovi era, and probably the most essential, Crush still stands up today.
The terror attacks on September 11th 2001 hit close to home for Bon Jovi, and lead them on a more sombre path for the follow up to the more palatable Crush. Not that they adopted a fresh new sound, but the heavy stomp of “Undivided”, “Everyday”, “Hook Me Up” and the title track is pretty sparse in much of their other material. There’s still plenty of balladry and radio friendly rock on offer however, with “Misunderstood”’s irrepressible hook making it the pick of the bunch. A more uneven effort than Crush, Bounce does still have its fair share of great songs that make it worth your time, but it still ranks towards the bottom of the Bon Jovi canon.
Have a Nice Day (2005)
Despite dialling back the heaviness heard on Bounce a touch, Have a Nice Day carries on in a similar vein as its predecessor, continuing to draw from the well of poppy, mainstream hard rock. The album starts well with the memorable title track, and as it rips through great song after great song, you begin to think that Bon Jovi are on to a sure fire winner. However, after the rousing “Bells of Freedom”, the record falls of a cliff, descending into vapid, middle of the road fodder. Consequently, Have a Nice Day is a good example of a front loaded album, as there is very little of note after the sixth track. This makes for an album that is, rather strangely, both disappointing and satisfying, and perhaps with a rejigged track list it would come across as a better outing. As is, there is enough to quality for it to be worth a recommendation, if only for the stellar first half, but I wouldn’t expect it to rank highly on any best of Bon Jovi lists.
Lost Highway (2007)
With the success of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”’s country mix a few years prior, as well as the subject matter of “Wanted Dead or Alive”, “Ride Cowboy Ride” and the soundtrack of western picture Wild Guns II (his first solo album, Blaze of Glory), it was perhaps inevitable that Jon would eventually try his hand at country music. Cynics may accuse it of being a cheap cash in, but the signs were always there. That said, the country tag is a little misleading, as Lost Highway is more a modern Bon Jovi record with a fair helping of country flavour rather than a full blooded excursion into uncharted territory. A brighter, more summery sounding album than much of their output, there’s no denying that Lost Highway is one of Bon Jovi’s strongest albums, with little in the way of filler or duds. The title track, “I Love This Town” and “Any Other Day” are the best of the buoyant tracks, whilst the slow build of ballad “(You Want to) Make a Memory” is devastatingly beautiful. Perhaps the biggest left turn of Bon Jovi’s career, the quality on show proves that Lost Highway was a risk worth taking.
The Circle (2009)
After 2007’s detour through Nashville, Bon Jovi returned to their 21st century norm with The Circle. Although it is easy (and perhaps justifiable) to see this as a negative, the fact the album is so damn strong should be enough to override any criticism levelled in this regard. Feel good anthem “We Weren’t Born to Follow” kicks things off on a high note, and things rarely drops below this standard for the album’s duration. Whilst there’s a more solemn tone after the sunshine of Lost Highway, there’s also an undertone of hope and optimism, making for an album that feels all too real and relatable in the current socio-political climate. There’s a pair of wonderful ballads in “When We Were Beautiful” and “Learn to Love”, with “Bullet” and “Brokenpromiseland” a more hard hitting, sobering reflection on Jon’s world view at the time. As far as recent Bon Jovi albums go, The Circle is definitely one of the better ones and well worth 50 minutes of your time.
What About Now (2013)
Album number twelve saw Bon Jovi settled nicely on the path they’d been walking since 2000, with another record utilising the mainstream rock formula they’d relied on for the past 15 years or so. What About Now is nothing if not predictable, and Sambora’s phenomenal lead skills are curtailed almost to the point of non existence, but there’s probably enough here for both hardcore and casual fans to enjoy. I suppose the most disappointing thing is there is little in the way of tracks that can stand up to their previous works; conversely, there’s nothing bad enough to drag the album into the mire of mediocrity. “Amen” has a stellar performance from Jon that proves he can still strike an emotional chord in spite of his diminishing vocals, with “Because We Can”, “Beautiful World” and “That’s What the Water Made Me” all lively, upbeat highlights. In the grand scheme of things, What About Now is unlikely to be remembered among the great Bon Jovi records, but it still holds some value all the same.
This House Is Not for Sale (2016)
2015’s stop gap release, Burning Bridges, marked the first time Bon Jovi had released a record without Richie Sambora, easing the pressure that would eventually come with composing from scratch for This House Is Not for Sale. The impact is diminished by the presence of long time songwriting partners John Shanks and Billy Falcon, although Sambora’s absence is still glaring when any leads pop up (as sparse as they may be). The merits of being with or without Sambora are up for debate, but I can’t say the album suffers too much with Phil X stepping into his shoes; it is largely a modern Bon Jovi record with vaguely different textures. There are a few adventurous moments though, with “Born Again Tomorrow” sounding like a rocking take on a floor filling dance anthem, and “Roller Coaster”, a breezy jaunt that is probably the closest to conventional pop as they’ve ever got. There’s perhaps too much of a retread on familiar ground (and the guitar line in “Labor of Love” is a dead ringer for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”), but there is a renewed vigour and energy to the record that helps cast aside these drawbacks.