The initial question that springs to mind when considering a new Van Halen album, especially the first one to feature the “original” lineup in over 20 years, is inevitably likely to be “What.The.Fuck?!!?” It’s not like there was groundswell of desire for this record (OK maybe there was), and in the time since this groups last album 1984, the musical playing field has shifted from the crass theatrics of that age towards a more refined era where people have real feelings (Bon Iver has all of them..sorry, er, everyone) and really REALLY want to tell you about them (Justin...I feel you brah...I FEEL you!). Musically speaking, the world as we knew it has moved on....or HAS IT?
With the release of A Different Kind of Truth, the “gentlemen” of Van Halen (Dave, Eddie, Alex and…Wolfgang?) would certainly argue that not only have we not moved past those woozy, boozy spandex days, but that now we need them more than ever. See, they’ve seen the future and it looks almost exactly like the past. That the songs off of Truth sound like just about anything else from the Diamond Dave era of Van Halen should come as no surprise. That those songs are (possibly) any good might though. Instead of writing a whole new batch of songs, the group mined material and ideas that they had over 20 years ago creating a record that sounds like nothing more than the next logical step for THAT Van Halen, just more-than-slightly delayed. So you’ll recognize, and be satisfied by the sound - that much can be established - but is A Different Kind Of Truth actually any good?
Before we get to that, there’s something that cannot be stated emphatically: Fuck the songs “Tattoo” and “Blood and Fire”. No really. Fuck em. I know that’s not exactly a fair or even intelligent critical analysis, but putting those songs down on tape for the world to hear was neither “fair” nor “intelligent”, so there you have it.
With that cheery sentiment out of the way, the question remains as to what exactly we are looking at here? An epic return to form? A modern classic? An epic metal masterpiece for the ages? Of course not. That’s RIDICULOUS. But suggest A Different Kind Of Truth contains what is probably the best playing we’ve heard from Eddie Van Halen in damn near a decade, and you might be on the right track.
Now, that’s not to say that Eddie ever became a bad guitar player. No, throughout the Van Hagar years (and even into the Cherone years - shudder) there was just something missing – a spark that had seemingly gone out despite his best efforts to rekindle it. Was it the absence of Dave? Was it simple boredom with his guitar demi-god status? Drugs? His well documented struggles with alcohol? It’s hard to say, but one listen to Truth and you have to ask yourself “do I really care?” A Different Kind Of Truth is a Van Halen record all right...and it’s ALL Eddie’s.
The songs here, and I mean to say all of them, have more attitude, more 6 string highs, hell, more BALLS than just about anything we’ve heard coming out of the VH camp in MULTIPLE decades. There was a reason Van Halen was on top back in the 80’s and this type of playing was it. Throughout his career Eddie Van Halen has managed to fearlessly and savagely do things with his guitar that boggle the mind, all for the sake of rocking your fucking face. That was the power of Van Halen back in the day, and that’s the power now. So if that’s what you’ve missed about Van Halen all these years, then this is, without a doubt, the record for you. Look for anything beyond that though and you may be heading into some slightly more shaky territories.
Van Halen - Then and WOW
What ultimately drags Truth down comes from the most surprising of places: David Lee Roth. It’s hard to say that he is horrible here, but much like The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn can’t, as of late, seem to summon the connection he once had to his “characters” Roth seems to have lost touch with his subjects to a similarly creepy effect. Unloading lines like “Be your knight in shining pick-up truck” or “If you wanna be a monk/You’ve gotta cook a lot of rice” he leaves nowhere to hide from the cringe-worthy badness, and it’s an awkward shame because there was a time when it didn’t matter what Roth said, it fucking ruled.
In the late 70’s Roth’s shtick worked because FUCK YEA, IT WAS THE 70’S!!! Everything was (is?) better with strippers and blow and all the scarves and spandex you could ever need. The men of Van Halen were young, party hard, road warriors in an era completely obsessed with “the party” (not to be confused with “the show” that bands like REO Speedwagon, Supertramp and Foreigner so often sang about) and Diamond Dave was their captain. Roth was the undisputed master of “sleaze-core” (yes, another genre…why the hell not) and remarkably was able to carry the aesthetic far past the time when it should have been dead, dead, dead, to almost halfway through the 80’s. Even in (and on) 1984 when Roth growled lines like “I brought my pencilllll!/Gimme something to write on!” it just felt right. Not only that, it made SENSE dammit. On Truth, whatever mojo Dave used to have has apparently evaporated leaving us with a 60 year old man content to be the voice of a libido 40 years his junior.
Ultimately, it’s best to look at Truth for what it is: The logical next step for the band had they not “called it quits” over 20 years ago. It would be somewhat disingenuous to have expected the next 1984 or Van Halen, or even Van Halen 2, because put simply, they’ve never really been a band that delivered consistently strong records. Empirically speaking, just how good was Van Halen really? Without a doubt, Van Halen were BAD ASS, but we all have a tendency to romanticize the past and gloss over the bad stuff in favor of the BAD ASS stuff. And honestly makes our memories a whole lost sweeter in the long run. But if I’m being honest, I’d be hard pressed to listen to say, Women and Children First, or Diver Down in their entirety these days. In fact, if I’m aiming to blaspheme, I’d even call out Fair Warning as, overall, being sort of a turd of a record. Taken in that context, 1984, the last Van Halen album proper, comes off as a bit of a fluke, rendering the question of “Is A Different Kind Of Truth a good album” sort of moot. What were we to expect?
Ultimately, A Different Kind Of Truth is a serviceable, mid-level Van Halen album that we haven’t heard the likes of for almost 30 years. Good? Bad? That’s your call. But know that there is enough nostalgia and over-the-top guitar heroics here to at the very least garner at a passing consideration. That’s more than I think anyone could have anticipated, much less be let down by, making Truth an unexpected treat, even if it’s shelf life can be measured in weeks or days and not decades like it’s older, more refined, musical siblings.
Now if they would just make nice with Michael Anthony…
See Eddie SHRED circa 2012 in the video below