“Cool” gets thrown around a lot, but most critics and fans alike wouldn’t ascribe the word to Van Halen – not even frontman David Lee Roth. In a recent interview with The Toronto Sun, Diamond Dave admitted, “We were never cool. Even when we were happening, even when we were the flavour of the week the first time, we weren’t cool. John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever were cool. And across the street, The Sex Pistols and The Clash were cool. We were just kind of an island.” That’s some pretty bold insight coming from a guy that’s renown for his sparkling spandex, beach-stained, sprawling hair, and cheeky sailor outfits. (Just Google him.) Truth be told, he’s not just being modest or self-deprecating, he’s right on the money.
From its inception, Van Halen has always been the proper escape for adolescent males. They trademarked a sound that essentially offered the greatest party anyone could find. They were many a teen’s Friday night fiesta, even if said teen never left the house. You didn’t have to “get” the spandex, but you could soak up Eddie Van Halen’s convertible cruising riffage or Roth’s over-the-top hysteria for all things fun ‘n’ games. To counteract Jacobean poet John Donne, Van Halen were an island, all entirely of itself. Forty years later, we’re still apt to take an Oceanic flight over its rough terrain. What? No Lost fans?
A Different Kind of Truth is Van Halen’s twelfth studio album, but only their seventh effort with Roth. It’s been nearly 30 years since they issued their last Roth-led album (1984) to the world, and since then, the band has seen its routine shake ups. They continued their success with Roth follow-up Sammy Hagar, and when that spoiled after 11 years together, they tried their hand with Hagar follow-up Gary Cherone (of Extreme), which ultimately resulted in their dicey, critically-panned eleventh LP, Van Halen III. Although its lead single “Without You” charted at #1 for six weeks, the band has largely ignored Van Halen III, even forgoing any of its tracks for later greatest hits releases. So, in many ways, A Different Kind of Truth offers a breath of fresh air – or, at the very least, an exciting new chapter.
Actually, if Van Halen’s story were one day collated into some big, greasy biography (and it will), one might peg this era as that mirthful chapter to close out the book. Things feel right, as evidenced in last month’s reunion gig at New York’s Cafe Wha?, which had critics like Sasha Frere-Jones and Chuck Klosterman reeling. In fact, Klosterman titled his review piece, “The Incredibly, Insanely, Undeniably Awesome Return of Van Halen,” but most of his readers probably weren’t surprised by his fan-like exasperation. Frere-Jones, on the other hand, offered a little more objectivity, concluding that “only a Grinch would pass up the chance to see them at least once.” However, on the topic of the new LP, he also stated, “Only the magical thinker would expect the new album to be a necessary addition to their catalog.”
He’s right. A Different Kind of Truth is hardly necessary. The band could easily hit the road without new material – and they did, back in 2007 – but in hindsight, their catalog would always end with Van Halen III. Granted, there are hardly any fans that consider the album canon (sort of like how cinephiles neglect to acknowledge Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but doesn’t a reunion rock record to champion make for a better ending? It does and Van Halen has accomplished just that. Over 13 tracks, A Different Kind of Truth offers the same youthful escape that sold the band to millions worldwide over 30 years ago. Roth hardly sounds geriatric, Eddie’s solos repel, quake, and tremble, Alex’s thundering percussion remains intact, and Eddie’s son (and the band’s current bassist), Wolfgang, fits right in. Even without Michael Anthony, the harmonies warm up each track in trademark fashion, cementing this as a genuine Van Halen effort.
There’s a reason for that: A good number of these tracks stem from older demos. One might consider that a cause for alarm, but it works to Van Halen’s advantage here. “She’s the Woman” dates back to a 1976 demo that signed the band to Warner Bros., and it sports the album’s catchiest chorus, recalling the sunny decadence of “Beautiful Girls”. A track like “Blood and Fire” has ties to the band’s score for the 1984 film The Wild Life, yet decades later it swells with flavor, namely due to Roth’s knack for cheese: “Come back when you’re younger/’cause I can feel the thunder/1-800-Guitar.” It’s absolutely perverse – borderline idiotic even – but it’s plain ‘ol fun. Then there’s “Big River”, based on the oft-discussed “Big Trouble” demo which has circulated amongst fans for years, and was actually originally intended for Diver Down and then 1984. This soulful rocker oozes of late ’70s hijinks and the thudding basslines and stormy percussion work off Eddie’s strongest guitar work on the album – not the other way around. “Beats Workin'” culls its energy from past demo “Put Out the Lights”, another lost gem off that Warner Bros. tape, and closes out the album with clamorous focus.
Some of the backpedaling doesn’t work, however. Take lead single, “Tattoo”, for example. Between Eddie’s uninspired, sluggish guitar lines and Roth’s slightly awkward lyrics, the whole thing, while catchy, doesn’t sit well. Neither does “Outta Space”, which dates back to 1976 (see: “Let’s Get Rockin'”) yet paces around like a muscle car with a flat tire – also, nobody wants to envision Diamond Dave setting up his Facebook page, either. “Honeybabysweetiedoll” or “The Trouble with Never” might have worked in 1999, maybe with Gary Cherone even, but now they’re just dated and ugly. One could argue the same for “Bullethead”, especially with its sludgy into, but its MotÃ¶rhead-fronted-by-Roth vibe offers plenty to love.
A number of fans will revel in Eddie’s killer licks, but the true hero here is Roth. It’s quite clear that the lanky frontman has been waiting for years to really let loose, and A Different Kind of Truth offers him plenty of opportunities. On “Stay Frosty”, the proposed sequel to “Ice Cream Man”, the bluesy track innately frames just what this reunion has accomplished. It’s that long-awaited chapter that finds Roth back on his island, holding his conch, and leading his incredibly fractured family – yet instead of lamenting, he’s partying like there’s no tomorrow. “I’m doing the victory dance,” he states proudly in “Blood and Fire”. Really, what more do you want from a reunion record, especially one by Van Halen?
Essential Tracks: “Blood and Fire”, “She’s the Woman”, and “Big River”