Bon Jovi Enters at No. 1, Deserves It

Don't laugh. After all, 292,000 fans can't be wrong. That's how many people bought Bon Jovi's new "country" album, Lost Highway (Island), in the first week of its release, enabling it to enter The Billboard 200 at the top spot in the issue dated July 7. It beat out the ultrahip White Stripes' Icky Thump, which debuted at No. 2 with 223,000 copies sold. And it even beat out a real country album, Brad Paisley's 5th Gear, which entered at No. 3 with 197,000.

This is also remarkable because it's the first time that Bon Jovi has had a No. 1 album since 1988, when New Jersey topped the charts. The only other time the band had a No. 1 was the year before that, with the album before that. Perhaps you've heard of it: Slippery When Wet.

What's truly remarkable is that, 20 years after their heyday, Bon Jovi is actually capable of topping the charts - and doing it with a damn good record.

Like I said, don't laugh. I once laughed - and I learned my lesson. Allow me to tell you a little story . . .

Actually, if you've got a copy of the January 1989 issue of High Fidelity magazine, you've already read the story. (C'mon, I know you've got a copy. There it is, right next to the blender!) Back then, as popular music editor of HF, I reviewed the first batch of CD-Videos (remember that format?), which included Slippery When Wet: The Videos. Anyway, I started the review with this embarrassing story, which I'm willing to share again (oh, the sacrifice) . . .

The first time I saw Jon Bongiovi was in 1980 at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park, when he was the lead singer for a band called the Rest. He had straight, short hair neatly parted down the middle, wore pressed jeans and a plain shirt, and sang run-of-the-mill songs for that run-of-the-gin-mill bar band. Ho hum, I chuckled. Another nondescript rocker destined to go nowhere.

Well, we know who had the last laugh.

Now, nearly 30 years later, comes Bon Jovi's 10th studio recording, Lost Highway. First, forget about this supposedly being a "country" album. Yeah, Big & Rich are here, and so is LeAnn Rimes - not to mention country producer Dann Huff. Plus you get the odd fiddle and pedal-steel guitar. But this is still your basic Bon Jovi album.

Except, it's not really that basic. Last time out, for Have a Nice Day, the band tried so hard to sound like Bon Jovi - tried so hard to make every chorus Big & Brash - that the album eventually became a blur, except for the irresistible "Who Says You Can't Go Home." This time out, there are more dynamics. The album breathes. If this is "country," then it's the heartland sound of John Mellencamp, to be more precise.

Meanwhile, Jon sings impressively, Richie Sambora contributes both ringing chords and deft licks, and the whole band comes across lean and fresh, thanks partly to Huff and tag-team producer John Shanks.

Most important, though: The songs are songs. "Starting out some 25 years ago," Jon says in the band's bio, "we grew up on the belief that great songs were the bottom line. That great songs marked memories not only for us as writers but for the audience that listened to them. Lost Highway took us to a place where we could renew that belief."

"You Give Love a Bad Name," "Livin' on a Prayer," "Wanted Dead or Alive." Great songs all. "Bad Medicine," too, and "It's My Life." The songs on Lost Highway may not reach such giddy heights, but they're miles away from run-of-the-mill - especially the powerful ballad "(You Want to) Make a Memory," the well-matched pairing of Jon and LeAnn in "Till We Ain't Strangers Anymore," and the country-rocker "Everybody's Broken." Back in that Asbury bar, I thought I'd seen the last of Jon Bongiovi. But listening to an album as solid as Lost Highway, I'm content that he, well, never said goodbye. -Ken Richardson