Jon Bon Jovi is the singer and creative guru of Bon Jovi, a mega-platinum pop-metal band that (1) combines the fervor of hard rock with the delirious snap of good bubble gum, and (2) shamelessly borrows great swatches of its music from other artists. Play Bon Jovi a piano riff from a Springsteen song, let’s say, and if the band members like it, they’ll steal it. The group’s most recent album, New Jersey, borrows not just from Springsteen, but from such wildly diverse sources as Aerosmith, George Michael, and U2.
Now, though, Bon Jovi’s leader has made a solo album, of (as its cover painstakingly notes) ”songs written and performed by Jon Bon Jovi” and ”inspired by the film Young Guns II”, in which he plays a tiny role. Gone is the glowing hard-rock fervor; gone are the catchy bubble-gum melodies. This is the serious Jon Bon Jovi, who at least temporarily has redefined himself as a rawboned heartland rocker in the mode of Springsteen or John Cougar Mellencamp.
In this new phase, his most flagrant borrowings aren’t musical. Mainly he apes the pose he strikes: He’s the sensitive outlaw, familiar from countless movies and songs, the good man driven bad by the world’s ills. And he cribs large chunks of his lyrics from America’s common stock of proverbs and cliches. ”It’s the strong who survive,” he sings in a song called ”Never Say Die.” ”They say that no man is an island,” he intones in ”Santa Fe.”
The music, while not flagrantly derivative, doesn’t have much to say, even though stars like Elton John, Jeff Beck, and even Little Richard play in Bon Jovi’s backup band; every song has the same hoarse and earnest tone. The result is an album nothing can save, not the touches of boogie in ”You Really Got Me,” not the gospel choir in ”Bang a Drum,” not the excerpts of orchestral blather from the ”Young Guns II” soundtrack or the snips of the film’s dialogue that crop up now and then between songs (”You rode a 15-year-old boy straight to his grave, and the rest of us straight to hell!”). Bon Jovi sounds like a kid having the time of his life pretending he’s a cowboy. The rest of us, after a song or two, may want to tiptoe off and let him play by himself.