Long before irony, in 1995, it was becoming seriously un-cool for an American teenager to like Bon Jovi. You could get away with it in Southeast Asia and Europe, but Pearl Jam and Nirvana had long since destroyed the caricatures of American hair metal and the biggest bands of the 80’s were struggling to reinvent themselves with shorter, darker hair, heavier riffs and barely any recorded music. While Jon Bon Jovi could be credited with starting the Rachel from Friend’s hair before Jennifer Aniston on 1992’s Keep the Faith, as a songwriter he continued to dive deep into the combination of classic rock structure and area rock choruses for his band’s musical and emotional power.
As I finished my junior year of high school the band released their sixth LP These Days. It was a time of darkness and disillusionment in my life as I lay deep in the muck and depression of heartbreak. I strayed from my friends that summer as my passion for baseball, my other childhood love, faded. It was like Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” was plastered inside my heart. Instead of the former Eagle, I listened to These Days. Like every red blooded American tween I had been listening to Bon Jovi since their third album, Slippery When Wet, took the world by storm. I rode the steel horse’s massive reach on “Wanted Dead or Alive” and aligned with the naughty need for “Bad Medicine” as New Jersey took things to another level. These Days, while still carrying the mainstream heart of JBJ, is a different animal. The band’s first album following a less then amicable breakup with original bassist, Alex Jon Such, the disenchantment runs deep. The band was grieving the loss on one of their oldest friends and sounded willing to express this despair musically. No longer burdened with the expectations of being the planet’s biggest band, Bon Jovi made arguably their best album.
Opening with the snarling “Hey God”, JBJ and guitarist Richie Sambora immediately set a heavy tone by addressing economic inequality and poverty, not the stuff of hair metal legend. “What the hell is going on! Seems like all the good shit’s gone. It keeps on getting harder hanging on”. Should you question the incongruence of a very rich man addressing poverty, I urge you to check out the charitable work of JBJ’s Soul Foundation. “Something For the Pain” is a classic, melodic concoction that carries a sweet pain. While Jon shouts his anger inside his trademark hooks, the band displays their underrated chops by diving into a Beatles-esque bridge before slamming back into the song’s massive, arena-ready chorus. The album’s only American hit, “This Ain’t a Love Song” is next. Co-written by the band’s secret weapon, Desmond Child, this is a slow burning Jovi power ballad in full get-up, akin to “I’ll Be There for You” from New Jersey. When the band is able to successfully combine JBJ’s everyman impersonation with hooks to break your heart they hit full throttle form. Sambora deftly offers his powerfully expansive tone and the crisp, satisfying harmonies of keyboardist David Bryan echo and soothe in classic form. Riding the cresting wave of Tico Torres’ thunder-cat drumming no band does power ballads like the boys from Jersey.
“These Days”, the song, is an unheralded Jovi classic. It’s a mid tempo cross between ballad and “rocker” (as I used to describe them when I was 12) that explores the record’s central theme of disillusionment. That 1992 hair didn’t prevent JBJ from seeing change blowing in the wind back then but he asked us to Keep the Faith. By the time 1995 rolled around the music climate had dramatically shifted and America’s increasing social problems spiraled downward due to rising economic inequality. JBJ is skilled at using the language of love (the international language) to describe and highlight his social commentary. As I deepened my relationship with the album and realized Jon Bon Jovi was losing faith, I felt like I was screwed. My emotional upheaval continued to impact the entirety of my life and I was relatively catatonic. Undoubtedly acting dramatically, a high school kid with over sized emotions, it still felt real and I strangely didn’t seem to want out of it. Something about being mired in the darkness appealed to me. My big love had collided with the most melancholy Bon Jovi album, a match made in depressed hair metal heaven, and I felt comforted. A desperate longing infiltrates the melodies as a dark red fire of hope burned underneath my depression. I simultaneously felt horrible and self-righteous in my anger. As he sang, “No one wants to be themselves these days. Still there’s nothing to hold onto but these days” I felt the primitive desperation of a broken heart and simultaneously the only hope I had.
“Lie to Me” tore me open for six straight months and if I am in a certain frame of mind it can do the same today. By using the subtle yet dynamic resonance of Sambora’s bluesy background vocals as a counterpoint to Jon’s expressive wail, it is an expert exploration inside the messy confusion of love. “If you don’t love me, lie to me. Cause, baby you’re the one thing I believe. Let it all fall down around us, if that’s what’s meant to be. Right now if you don’t love me, lie to me“. It would be a crime to not highlight Sambora’s background vocals that cry toward the heavens. When he sings, “I don’t want to die no more” I felt a plea for relief that churned my heart every time around.
“Damned” is a prime example of Sambora’s underrated guitar playing. Often written off as a hack, he shows up here, firing off a syncopated, shredding solo. Furthermore, on the ode to George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, Sambora tears apart “My Guitar Lies Bleeding in my Arms” in all its dark, minor key majesty. He shows a knack for weaving in and out of a playfully mellifluous style and paints his notes with epic grandeur. Paced close to a crawl with an eerie synth underbelly and subtle guitar musings, “It’s Hard (Letting You Go)” is a triumph of sweet longing that employs electronic percussion as influenced by the resonant impact of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. For further JBJ interpretations of this style check out his gorgeous solo album, Destination Anywhere. This is all despondent demand. “I wish the stars up in the sky would all just call in sick and the clouds would take the moon out on some one way trip”. I can remember viscerally weeping to the line “These days I just miss you, it’s the nights I go insane”. Yes, that’s what happened.
On “Heart’s Breaking Even” JBJ showcases an ability to incorporate 1950s doo-wop and Frank Sinatra style into modern hair metal by upping the drama. He drops a show stopping moment when he changes keys during a breakdown that likely dropped some female drawers as well. This is more of a classic Bon Jovi sound with gargantuan hooks and a full throttle opening that sounds similar to the underrated New Jersey classic “Stick to Your Guns”. Not to be confused with Poison’s epic track, “Something to Believe In” is a dark ballad that uses Sambora’s ethereal “oohs” in the background for full impact as John builds to a scream. Throughout, the melancholy mood swirls via David Bryan’s warm keyboard work and Sambora’s employment of guitar dissonance. The album eventually collapses in exhaustion and ends in “Diamond Ring”, a somber ode to JBJ’s one point of faith, his long-standing marriage to his high school sweetheart. While my hope of the same ended, I found deep solace in this album. Thank you Bon Jovi for indulging me when I needed it most. It might have saved my life.