Alright, I’ll admit, this review isn’t really anything except a bit of schedule filler. Turns out preparing two one off radio shows while blitzing through the Pokemon franchise and preparing for a film role takes up more of your time than expected.
Still, might as well talk about something most people are familiar with and what better than Bon Jovi’s most recognisable album, their 1986 classic Slippery When Wet? One of the best selling albums in the U.S. and considered to be one of the essential albums to hear in your life (well, it made it into 1001 You Must Hear Before You Die, at least), this album is a bona fide classic that doesn’t really need a lot of discussion.
Or does it? For such a well known album, I imagine the vast majority of people couldn’t name any tracks from it that aren’t “You Give Love a Bad Name”, “Livin’ on a Prayer” or “Wanted Dead or Alive” if they were asked. This is certainly the case for a lot of classic albums: a lot of respect for what they represent, but the vast majority of people couldn’t tell you anything about them that isn’t just further parroting of that respect or the biggest hits from those records.
That is why I am going to review this album without considering the legacy of it, instead judging it on its own merits. I am aware that to do so would almost certainly mean that this review is entirely subjective and very easy not to trust, considering that this record has almost certainly been a huge influence on a huge number of bands, but it is this approach which I think will allow us to see whether the record really holds up as well as its legacy indicates.
However, I feel that I should offer an image of what the music landscape was like when this album was released, so let us cover this quickly. 1986 was a year with a lot of classic albums released: the average metalhead would be able to immediately point towards Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Megadeth’s Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying, but Paul Simon made a comeback with Graceland, Van Halen released their first album with Sammy Hagar as their lead vocalist, Europe’s The Final Countdown was a smash hit, Journey’s Raised on Radio came out (which would actually be their last record of the decade), Boston’s long awaited third album came out, Iron Maiden released their follow up to the legendary Powerslave…it was basically a great year to be a fan of hard rock, pop and melodic metal music, really. Such an environment, of course, would have been the perfect time to release an album like this one, which combines elements of all three of them (well, more so the first two than the latter, though “Raise Your Hands” definitely has enough speed to push beyond standard hard rock fare) into a package that most people would have loved to have heard at the time.
But, looking at the material in and of itself, does it really live up to the hype that it has received now? Well…I think it’s a really solid record that definitely is worth a listen, but I think claims of it being flawless are somewhat exaggerated, for it has some tracks which just don’t hit the mark as well as the big hits would have you think it would do and it’s not really that unusual a album on the songwriting side even for the time it was released.
Let me start by discussing the negatives, because the list of criticisms I have of the record is actually not as long as you might be expecting. First of all, the albums has quite a few tracks which, while not that badly written overall, just never grabbed me as a personal listener. Opener “Let It Rock” always felt like it dragged too much during the opening for me and didn’t really recover enough to make up for that stumble (though I imagine it would be an amazing track to open a show with, so consider this more a criticism of how it sounds on the record than as a live track). “Without Love”, while hardly a BAD track (certainly, it’s well written and is still better than a lot of similar material that I’ve heard), always felt to me like it was a bit on the cliche side of things and never really stood out to me as all that special in comparison to what surrounds it. “Never Say Goodbye” has always struck me as like “Without Love”: not really a BAD track, just not really as good as the rest of the material on the record.
Another negative is that the record doesn’t really do anything that would have been all that new even when the record came out. Now, in fairness, the record doesn’t sound like anyone else in the scene at the time (so there’s no accusation of them ripping off, say, Motley Crue here, just that one can pretty easily and quickly label this record as part of the melodic hard rock spectrum) and you can definitely make the case that strong songwriting is more important than sounding unique, but, even in 1986, Bon Jovi would not have been getting points for sounding like they were offering something new, because they really weren’t: about the really unique thing they had was the use of a talkbox, which wasn’t being used that much in their spectrum of music at the time.
I guess you could argue that, on the instrumental performance front, not everyone pulls their weight. Richie Sambora definitely has some great lead guitar moments, Jon Bon Jovi’s rhythm guitar playing gets some solid moments to it (just listen to “Raise Your Hands”: the playing speed practically enters thrash metal levels of speed!) and David Bryan’s keyboards are pretty good overall (certainly, better than a lot of his contemporaries!), but Alec John Such’s bass playing doesn’t really do anything particularly impressive and Tico Torres’ drumming just feels like it is following the usual cliches of their spectrum of music. Admittedly, there’s nothing which is badly done, just maybe not all that impressive in comparison to the band’s contemporaries.
That’s really where my complaints end, though, because the rest of the record is really, REALLY good!
Let me talk about the good side of the material. Now, everyone and their mother is already familiar with “Livin’ on a Prayer”, “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” and it’s for a good reason: they’re just absolutely brilliant songs which are really easy to enjoy, but are ridiculously catchy and very well written on top of it. “Raise Your Hands” is a bit on the heavier side in comparison to those tracks, but it is an underrated gem in my book, managing to avoid coming across as too heavy in spite of the speed of the guitar playing, having a ridiculously catchy chorus that, while rather simple, is guaranteed to get you singing along to it and managing to avoid coming across as an attempt to add heaviness to the record for the sake of adding heaviness. “Wild in the Streets” is a truly magnificent closing track that ends things off on an energetic note while still having a feeling of being the closing track. Normally, I tend to find that an energetic track to finish off an album doesn’t work for me, but that’s definitely not the case here, being one of the few times where the record genuinely does leave you wanting more when it finishes and is still an excellent track in its own right, with some excellent keyboards, a chorus that you’ll be singing along to from the first listen and an amazing vocal performance from Jon Bon Jovi. “Social Disease” is also an excellent track, with some surprisingly good lyrics and another chorus that isn’t going to be leaving anyone’s heads any time soon. Lastly, “I’d Die for You”, while not really as strong in my eyes as the others I’ve highlighted, still managed to maintain a bit of an edge to it and is coupled with some solid lyrics and a really enjoyable chorus that makes it very difficult not to enjoy it on its own merits.
All of this is, of course, without talking about Jon Bon Jovi’s vocals. While he doesn’t push his voice on the record as far as he pushes it on “Livin’ on a Prayer” (he also doesn’t go for the falsetto that he demonstrated on tracks like “Runaway”) and he might sound a bit like a typical vocalist in this style to the average ear, he still demonstrates a great vocal range across the record and combines it with an incredible vocal tone (having enough of a rocker edge to it to avoid the usual problems of pop singers leading rock bands, but still being very poppy and clean, making his voice naturally fit in with the band’s sound) and a strong delivery where his enthusiasm and conviction bleeds through with every note he sings. There’s a reason why this guy was considered to have one of the best singing voices of the original glam metal scene and, if you need any proof of why that was said, then this record will easily fit that bill!
The version of the album I’m listening to is a remastered version of it that was released in 2010, so I’ll not go into detail about how the record sounds overall (although it’s a pretty solid job on the mixing and sound front: only real complain is that I think the bass could have done with a bit more presence in the mix, but you do hear it at points across the record, so this is more a personal nitpick overall) and just judge the remastering job. Unfortunately, the remaster suffers from the expected problems one would expect from that sentence, as the record is pretty loudly mastered in this form. I get that the intention when remastering a record is to keep up with modern day mastering trends and, at the time that the remaster was done, the loudness war was still in full swing (although a backlash was starting to crop up against it), so one could make a case that I’m being unnecessarily nitpicky here, but it is still not the record in its best form. The loudness does enhance some tracks (like “Raise Your Hands”), but it mostly comes across as just being loud because everything else is, which is exactly the wrong mentality to have because it creates the idea that you have to keep being louder than everyone else to be heard, which is somewhat moronic when you consider successes (commercially, at least) like Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail to the King which prove that loudness isn’t the important thing to most people, problems with the degradation of sound quality when you get past a certain point in mastering circles and the potential damage that can occur to the human ear when exposed to loud noises over a loud period of time (including tinnitus and loss of hearing).
Ultimately, while I have spent a decent amount of time basically saying why I don’t think Slippery When Wet is a flawless record, I will point out that the worst I have said against it is that some moments are just unimpressive in comparison to what was surrounding the record at the time or just don’t grab me much. Being honest, I would still rate this as a really good record that, while maybe not worthy of the claims of being flawless, still holds up incredibly well now, over three decades since its original release. It’s definitely a record that is a product of its time, but the quality of the material is strong enough that it still has the potential to impress people now. I won’t go so far as to say that you can’t call yourself a rock fan without having heard this record, but I definitely would say that, if you have any interest in 80s music or just really good melodic rock records and you haven’t heard this record yet, then you definitely need to rectify that as soon as possible!