Take a look at the charts: metal rules. And as the metal heap has gotten higher, it has also widened to the point that it can include such disparate bands as Bon Jovi and Metallica. Some might see no difference at all between the two bands, but to your average kid, they’re as opposite as shirts and skins. It’s the difference between the status quo and something really radical.
Metallica appeals both to critics and to angry, pimply adolescent males (actually, the two groups occasionally intersect); Bon Jovi is a band for “the kids” — including, oddly enough, a fair number of females. Bon Jovi’s new album, defiantly titled New Jersey, is so purely commercial that it’s practically beyond criticism (it would be more appropriate to evaluate its sales potential); Metallica makes challenging music worthy of considered analysis.
In 1988, if you name your album New Jersey, you suffer some Bruce comparisons. Bon Jovi’s album has a song called “Homebound Train” (check Bruce’s “Downbound Train”), with a chorus that goes, “I’m going down, down, down” (check Bruce’s “I’m Goin’ Down”). “Blood on Blood,” a tale of male bonding, is “Backstreets” revisited, Bon Jovi-style: “Danny knew this white-trash girl/We each threw in a ten/She took us to this cheap motel/And turned us into men.” If “Living in Sin” ended with a majestic sax solo, it would sound exactly like a Springsteen opus. So instead of claiming New Jersey as its own, Bon Jovi concedes that the state really is Bruce Country.
The relatively savage “Lay Your Hands on Me” kicks off New Jersey, but sugar-metal outings like “Wild Is the Wind,” which are veiled in a smoke screen of distortomatic guitars, are the album’s true heart. Slippery When Wet has sold 13 million copies, and the temptation to repeat ‘a tried-and-true formula evidently proved too great. Besides echoes of that album, New Jersey has smatterings of Def Leppard, Van Halen, Mellencamp and, of course, the Boss. Jon Bon Jovi is brilliant … at what he does. New Jersey has all the virtues and drawbacks of a popular record, hitting all the marks yet remaining thoroughly unidiosyncratic. Right now few of the tracks sound like hits, but there is no doubt that a year from now at least four will have become part of our collective consciousness.
The same cannot be said of Metallica. The band’s breakneck tempos and staggering chops would impress even the most elitist jazz-fusion aficionado. But the music’s dizzying twists and turns could be merely a reflection of short attention spans, the sonic equivalent of flipping channels on a TV set. “Blackened,” which features stunning drum work by Lars Ulrich, has something like five changes in meter. “One” begins with lyrical acoustic guitars and works up to a ferocious rhythmic whirlwind, executed with the precision of a close-order drill. The song is about a soldier with no arms, legs, sight, speech or hearing, kind of an amputee Tommy. Other songs have such titles as “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” and “To Live Is to Die.”
Thrash is too demeaning a term for this metametal, a marvel of precisely channeled aggression. There are few verse-chorus structures, just collages done at Mach 8. The album is crammed with diatribes about nuclear winter, the right to die and judicial corruption, delivered in an aggressive bark by rhythm guitarist James Hetfield. Metallica is as political as any band out there — it’s just speaking in more dire, melodramatic terms, which appeal to the dark underside of the white-suburban-male psyche. In “Harvester of Sorrow,” Hetfield growls, “My life suffocates/Planting seeds of hate/I’ve loved, turned to hate/Trapped far beyond my fate.” Metallica draws the lines in no uncertain terms — its world is a Zoroastrian duel of good and evil.
Metallica’s music is calculated to annoy anyone over thirty; Bon Jovi’s is literally calculated to please anyone under twenty: for both Slippery and New Jersey, Bon Jovi polled kids to determine which songs to put on the record. By contrast, Metallica has decided to release the sixty-five-minute-long … And Justice for All on two LPs at the usual single-LP price. That decision means a not negligible financial loss for the band and its label, but groove cramming results in diminished fidelity, or, as the label on the album says, “If we put it on one record it would sound like s!*t” (the self-censorship is interesting, considering that a song on the album, “Eye of the Beholder,” is about that very subject).
Bon Jovi’s trick is to use heavy-metal chords and still sound absolutely safe. Rock & roll used to be rebellion disguised as commercialism; now so much of it is commercialism disguised as rebellion. Bon Jovi is safe as milk; Metallica harks back to the time when rock’s bite was worse than its bark.