Pick a mystery, any mystery: the construction of the pyramids, the existence of Bigfoot, the chads of the 2000 presidential election. All of them (well, almost all) pale next to the elevation of Bon Jovi from seasoned hair-metal veterans to consummate rock band.
I wish I were joking, but, sadly, I'm only doing so in part. The group, and Jon Bon Jovi in particular, have been the subject of reverent profiles on VH1 and Bravo; when Jon addressed students of England's Oxford University last year, he was introduced as ''a defining artist of our generation.'' Thinking I'd missed something amid this wave of belated acclaim, I watched the band's live-concert telecast last year. When it was over, I was still perplexed: Sure, there were a few legitimate pop-metal guilty pleasures like ''You Give Love a Bad Name'' and Richie Sambora's ''wan-ted!'' shout-out in ''Wanted Dead or Alive,'' but the bulk of their repertoire amounted to weak rehashes of those two songs, hammy power ballads, and enough Springsteen knockoffs to fill another Eddie and the Cruisers sequel.
As that telecast demonstrated, Bon Jovi revisionism ultimately has little to do with music. Many other factors are at play, like Gen-X nostalgia for the '80s and a hunger on the part of a sizable audience for any type of non-rap, meat-and-potatoes rock. Maybe, too, the band is an inspiration for those who hope longevity means respect: If the Bon Jovi of ''Runaway'' can be taken seriously now, anyone can. It just can't be about the songs alone, not when they amount to hairsprayed rockers like ''Blaze of Glory'' or store-brand power ballads like ''Always.'' During the last decade, Bon Jovi also benefited greatly from Bruce Springsteen adopting a lower profile in his music and public appearances. A void had to be filled, and Bon Jovi were happy to oblige with a far cornier, and more simplistic, variation on Jersey-shore bar-band escapades.
Now that Bruce is back with an album that never flinches from its somberness of intent, Bon Jovi must have felt it was time to up the ante on respectability too. Bounce is, to quote a portentous statement issued by the band's label, ''a complete body of music, rather than a collection of singles'' and ''a complete work of art.'' Yes, Bon Jovi too have been motivated by recent world events and have decided to set them to music, much like the class screwup who wants to prove to the teacher that he can complete his homework assignment, if pressed. ''Undivided'' and ''Bounce'' are blatant post-Sept. 11 calls to arms, with ham-fisted lyrics that make Springsteen's touch seem even more deft. ''Hook Me Up'' would appear to be another one of Bon Jovi's man-size, but unsubstantive, arena rockers -- complete with ''come on!'' chorus -- until one realizes it's about ''a young Palestinian man in occupied territory'' who is trying to communicate with the outside world.
Bon Jovi have every right to write and sing topical songs. But the results are sonically grating (the music feels shrill and compressed) and strained, reducing the emotions and situations connected to Sept. 11 to stadium chants. In another statement, Bon Jovi says the title track ''referred to the city of New York, and the United States as a whole, but also to the band's perseverance over a 20-year career.'' Are these really comparable?
The rest of ''Bounce'' is neither better nor worse than Bon Jovi albums of the past. As always, there are blowsy love anthems for the female fans and crunching metallic Sambora riffs for the guys. Sambora and Bon Jovi want to show they're storytellers, not just craftsmen, so there is a tune sung in the voice of Jon's character on ''Ally McBeal,'' another about a ''slow'' kid in the neighborhood (a self-admitted attempt to imitate Elton John's ''Levon''), and one about criminals on the run (''Just like Butch and Sundance/We'll ride until the dawn''). There is a ballad in which Jon, in an homage to Sinatra that may or may not be deliberate, sings, ''Mistakes, I know I've made a few..../I've lived, I've loved, I've lost/I've paid some dues.'' There is, in other words, more cheese here than in the delicatessen down the block.
To commemorate the band's 20th anniversary, a boxed set -- a symbolic way of conferring heft on a musician's or band's career -- is planned for next year. Are there enough first-rate Bon Jovi songs to fill three or four discs? Someone in their camp seems to think so, which amounts to another one of life's -- and pop's -- eternal mysteries.