BON JOVI: BON JOVI (1984)
1) Runaway; 2) Roulette; 3) She Don't Know Me; 4) Shot Through The Heart; 5) Love Lies; 6) Breakout; 7) Burning For Love; 8) Come Back; 9) Get Ready.
We often tend to define the different genres of popular music through both form and meaning — for instance, The Clash play speedy, distorted, simplistic electric guitar riffs and sing about social injustice and rebellion, so they're «punks»; Black Sabbath play more complex, lower-pitched riffs and sing about Satan, so they're «metal». Every once in a while, though, along comes such a drastic incongruity that all rules and assumptions have to be revised, or even rejected. Sometimes this is done intentionally, as an understanding «mockery» of established tradition; sometimes it is simply done, because it just seems like the times were calling for it.
Few bands in the history of mankind, I think, have from the very beginning put so much of everything on «fake» as Bon Jovi — and did it with such a natural ease at that. Normally, when we hear «pop metal» and remember The Big Hair Decade, we would think of all those bands that carried on the tradition of shocking and grossing out their audiences: Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison, etc. Much, if not most, of the music that they produced sucked, but at least it kind of agreed with the image — «break all rules», «fuck everything that moves», that sort of thing. In comparison, Bon Jovi continuously produced music whose lyrical and emotional content was completely tame: unimaginative romantic love songs, mostly, with just a wee bit of animal sexual passion thrown in occasionally (on their debut album, ʽGet Readyʼ is the only song that explicitly deals with humping — placed right at the end, too, as if to say, «okay, getting a little tired with all that schmaltzy stuff, let's get down to some real business for a change»).
Tame, yes, but still retaining all the superficial «metal» trappings, starting from the band's visual image and ending with the musical arrangements — booming drums, grumbly distorted riffs, gang choruses, screechy high-pitched solos, the works. Keyboardist David Bryan is very much at the center of the sound (no small coincidence that the album opens with his nasty, primitive synthesizer clunking), but the guitar duo of Jon Bon Jovi (rhythm) and Richie Sambora (lead) never let the listener forget that this is Metal here, or, at least, Heavy Rock. In fact, they do not want you to think of them as soft-hearted pussies so much that there isn't even a proper «power ballad» anywhere on the album: all the songs are taken at mid- or fast tempos, and the sentimentality is restricted to Jon's (and sometimes to backup) vocals and to David's keyboards — they can wail and weep all they want, but the guitars will still sound harsh and brutal.
This seems like a rather jarring stylistic contradiction, but on a certain level, it works. For instance, people who had an instinctive attraction to the new «heavy» sounds, but were repelled by the «shock» image of the usual glam rockers, would probably see Bon Jovi as a guiding light — you can headbang to this music all you want, but you don't have to cuss, and you don't have to be afraid of embarrassing your God-fearing friends from the PMRC. And it works the other way round, too — if you come to Bon Jovi, merely out of scientific curiosity, expecting to hear the most godawful shite ever recorded, this lack of power ballads, for one thing, will be an almost pleasant surprise.
Still, even with all the pleasant surprises, this is some of the most godawful shite ever recorded, and the reason is simple enough: TEH DRAMA! You can almost literally feel the veins and arteries all over the well-exercised body of Jon Bon Jovi puff up and explode from being overworked as he piles up tons upon tons of sympathy for the protagonists of his songs (usually himself, but sometimes outsiders, too — ʽRunawayʼ is the ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ of the hair metal world, and the poor thing has become addicted to steroids since 1967). The general focus is not on how to make these primitive, if sometimes catchy, pop melodies more interesting, but on how to convey the agony and the suffering — because, you see, he's ʽBurning For Loveʼ as he calls upon her to ʽCome Backʼ, but ʽLove Liesʼ that ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ, so he's ʽShot Through The Heartʼ in an always-losing game of Russian ʽRouletteʼ. Figuratively speaking, of course. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (Not that there's much danger of anything here bearing resemblance to any activity by a real person, of course).
This is why, even acknowledging the pop hooks of the band's choruses, I find them ineffective. You can find yourself out on the street, distractedly humming "ooooooh, she's a little runaway" if you are not too careful, but it's a crude, blunt, shallow chorus, devoid of any subtlety or musical point of interest, relying on the power of the "oooooh" and the stop-and-start bit of the chorus to win over the hearts of undemanding fans. Oh, and the speed, of course — the speed at which these choruses are delivered are an integral part of the album's success. And then there's more drama in group vocalizations (ʽBreakoutʼ), gang shouts ("SHOT! SHOT! SHOT!"), and, of course, Sambora's ecstatic solos all over the place.
Interestingly enough, the album's only (still rather minor) hit was ʽShe Don't Know Meʼ — the only song in Bon Jovi's discography not written or co-written by a member of Bon Jovi; I guess their record label, at this point, did not yet trust Jon and Ritchie's hitmaking capacities, relying on outside songwriters. Indeed, the song is the least «metal» thing on the album and the closest thing here to a power ballad (though still taken at a much faster tempo for that) — more accurately, this is the closest Jon Bon Jovi comes to sounding as if he'd been having a crying fit on the album, always a big winner for all them lady fans.
Everything else follows pretty much the same formula — and, to be fair, we must state that Bon Jovi pretty much invented that formula, or at least became its absolute dominators: the «Keep It Simple, Serious» formula. In other words, their music is similar to Van Halen, but composition- and realisation-wise, it is much simpler, and attitude-wise, it takes itself far more seriously, with not an ounce of humor or sarcasm in sight. An atrocious formula, to be sure, but there's also something perversely attractive in its atrociousness, at least for the first time around — enough to suggest at least giving a single spin to ʽRouletteʼ or ʽShot Through The Heartʼ, probably the two best examples of Bon Jovi's «heavy metal broken heart» schtick on here. Despite the massive reputation of Slippery When Wet, it really doesn't get much better in the future — in fact, there wouldn't be a future Bon Jovi album where they'd play so fast on the average, and speedy Bon Jovi, warts and all, is always preferable to slow Bon Jovi, no exceptions.