Back when Bon Jovi was first trying to get a toehold on the charts, part of the group's charm was its average-guys-from-Jersey attitude. This crew wasn't interested in life's larger issues; all they cared about was chasing girls, rocking out and having fun. And you could hear it in the music, which was loud, low-concept and catchy.
But then they made it big, and suddenly, these guys from Jersey decided they were artistes with something serious to say. Just what that message might be wasn't so clear, but that hardly stopped them from assembling an album's worth of lyrical posturing and musical bombast. They called it "New Jersey," and like the state itself, large parts of it stank.
That was four years ago. Since then, the band members broke up, went solo, got ignored, then got back together. And now, with the release of "Keep the Faith" (Mercury/Jambco 314 514 045) yesterday, Bon Jovi is doing its best to pretend that the last four years never happened.
"Keep the Faith," after all, is not a concept album. It boasts no underlying symbolism, no hidden agenda. Sometimes the songs make a stab at delivering a message, but none attempt anything that can't be summed up in a song title: "I Believe." "Keep the Faith." "I Want You."
As such, all the album really has to offer is a few good hooks and some neat production tricks. Yet that's enough to make "Keep the Faith" almost as much fun as the band's breakthrough album, "Slippery When Wet."
Listen to the way they rip through the title tune, handily dispatching the semisymphonic chorus and pumping the "Sympathy for the Devil"-style groove for all its worth. As an intellectual statement, it makes a pretty good video, but as a rock and roll song, it simply begs to be cranked up on the car radio.
And really, isn't that the way it should be?
Granted, not every song is so mindlessly enjoyable. The slow songs seem particularly painful this time around, in part because the band's rhythm section seems on the verge of nodding off, but mostly because front man Jon Bon Jovi seems to see balladry as an excuse to indulge in a few musical impressions.
Consequently, "Bed of Roses" clunks along like bad-imitation Billy Joel, while "In These Arms" comes across like Foreigner trying to imitate Bruce Springsteen.
(A hint for CD owners: These are good songs to program around).
But the straight-up arena rockers are frighteningly catchy, even if they are derivative. In fact, the band may even benefit from its lack of originality, if only because its devout belief in cliche lets the band get away with murder.