Album Review: Van Halen - "A Different Kind of Truth"
Approximately 11 trillion words have already been written in anticipation of, and response to, Van Halen's new album, "A Different Kind of Truth." Those words have ranged between an instant haranguing under the guise of the album being far too late, and an automatic sterling review as a revival of one of the signature bands of rock and roll's arguably best era. There is a nagging perception that refuses to release the cognitive centers of my brain that says both sides of this blade are entirely too attached to a subjective feeling of nostalgia; that no one can talk intelligently about Van Halen's album without viewing it through the lens of their prior work and the era that birthed it, and/or comparing it directly to that body of work.
Therefore, it is the mission of this review to judge this new record in its proper context - the here and the now. Everyone can agree that "Van Halen I" is a peerless guitar album and instant classic; but thirty-four years after release it bears as much responsibility for the quality of "A Different Kind of Truth" as NWA's "Straight Outta Compton." That is to say, none. Some of the musicians bear the same name and that's all. Therefore, the only way a critique of this work can be fair is to consider it as an album in 2012.
Off the top, the album's single "Tattoo" is a pandering demonstration of the lowest common denominator in rock and roll. The overall esthetic is pedestrian, and the song tries to muscle by on the swaggering charm of David Lee Roth's vocal presence, only to be found lacking. In truth, Diamond Dave is hardly diamond these days, and the cynic in all of us would spend time deciding whether he is "Emerald Dave" or "Sapphire Dave," but that seems unnecessary and cruel. That said, his vocal performance reaches but does not grasp; he sounds at best adequate and at worst (and there is worst,) annoying. "Stay Frosty" could have been a great song as it takes great strides through the kingdom of classic twelve bar blues, and from a rhythm and virtuoso guitar standpoint, it is. However, Roth's vocal utterances are repetitive and vapid. Most of the chutzpah that so colored Dave's flamboyant, partying persona (that in turn made him a hero to fraternity brothers everywhere,) has been eroded.
The situation on "A Different Kind of Truth" does not improve appreciably for a while after "Tattoo." It isn't until the showcase piece "Chinatown" that the brothers (and son) Van Halen begin to assert their talent, but even this piece feels more like an elaborate showcase for talent or a tech demo put on by a gutiar company than an actual song.
This review is starting to sound like a downer, but that's okay; we've reached the heart of the order. There is a three song set right smack in the middle of "A Different Kind of Truth" that vindicates the effort and brings it back, if perhaps not to iconic status, at least to respectability and viability. Beginning with the toe-tapping "Bullethead," running through the upbeat and chorus driven "As Is" and culminating in the crappily named but wonderfully executed "Honeybabysweetiedoll," the album comes alive. These three songs provide the best context for where Van Halen is in 2012 as a musical entity. Not wrapped up in schmoozing or overt displays of showmanship that would have seemed dated, these songs show an appreciation for what was without getting lost in the tide of the past. Built solidly on a blues base (as all the best works of Van Halen always have been,) this three song set exemplifies the kind of talent that's present in the recording studio when these particular musicians get together, and blends in a medium dose of modern innovation in the form of heavier riffs and a fuller sound. Ignore Roth for a moment and concentrate on what's happening behind him. Alex Van Halen is laying down beats that may not garner strict attention, but they are forward in the mix and laying bricks for the other two band members who share his surname. Wolfgang Van Halen, this assumed prodigy of a bass player may be just that, but he is smart and/or tactful enough to play exactly in the pocket so that his father, Eddie, can do what he does best.
Eddie Van Halen is still, without nostalgic embellishments, the undisputed heavyweight champion of finger tapping and electric guitar insanity. There are those who I am certain would stand up and debate that point, no doubt naming off several very capable European speed players who can rifle up and down the scale with ease. And that's fine, no one is taking anything away from those very fine players. Still, rock and roll has always been about more than technical proficiency and beats per minute. Simply stated, their must be some soul. Eddie Van Halen, apart from his stellar guitar tone, always picks the right notes on "A Different Kind of Truth," and has an innate sense for knowing when to go blistering forth and knowing when to play a mirroring harmony. His idiomatic fingerprints (and finger-tapping,) are awfully familiar and in some cases seem nearly old hat; but that doesn't mean they're not still worthy of commendation.
Following the three songs that serve as cleanup hitters, we have a competent if not outstanding back half of the album, that oscillates between the high flying "Outta Space" and the ho-hum, verse-chorus-verse of "The Trouble With Never." "Big River," originally called "Big Trouble" in 1976, is a solid piece with the usual flair, and would have served as a better album ender than ultimate choice "Beats Workin'." But hell, you can always just skip the last track and pretend that "Big River" is the end, if you want to. I won't tell anybody.
The most important thing that can be said about Van Halen's new effort "A Different Kind of Truth," is that it should be judged for its individual merit. There's a lot of talk going around about whether the songs from the late seventies should have been or needed to be re-tooled for this album, but that's little more than an academic discussion for people who need to inject more examination into something that doesn't need it. The re-tooling has already been done, and there's no going back now. The bottom line is this: it's a good album, and that goes for any era, not just 1977 or 2012. David Lee Roth has slipped over the years and become a parody of himself, but he's not so distracting that the music surrounding him can't be enjoyed. Make no mistake, "A Different Kind of Truth" doesn't rewrite the legacy of Van Halen, nor does it establish a new benchmark for rock and roll. But it doesn't have to, and wasn't mean to. This is a very solid rock album which has good music on it that deserves to be listened to.