There are plenty of reasons to be wary of the new Van Halen album, A Different Kind Of Truth. But for the sake of time, let’s narrow them down to three:
- The lead single, “Tattoo,” was pretty bad. And after hearing the album, the song’s badness suggests that three-quarters of the band—the part actually named “Van Halen”—actively wanted to make David Lee Roth look foolish by putting it out as a single. It turns out that “Tattoo” is one of the two or three worst songs on the record; it’s also one of the two or three tracks that rely heaviest on Diamond Dave’s hepcat-on-Dexedrine shtick. The song’s odd, vocal-heavy mix emphasizes both Roth’s distance from the Van Halen clan—the band sounds like it’s playing in a studio on the other side of L.A.—and how horrendous the lyrics are. (“Swap-meet sally / Tramp-stamp cat / Housewife to bombshell in the time it took to get that new tattoo.”) Considering how many other classic-sounding Van Halen songs there are on Truth—“Blood And Fire” gets within spitting distance of greatness—the selection of “Tattoo” as the introductory track is explicable only as a subtle DLR pisstake. “You wanted Diamond Dave? Here’s your precious Diamond Dave, suckers!”
- If we assume that the Van Halen brothers still despise Roth, but decided to get back together with him anyway, then their refusal to also reunite with the infinitely more laid-back and tolerable Michael Anthony is even more nonsensical and infuriating.
- In spite of everything, A Different Kind Of Truth is a good record. It’s probably as good as can be reasonably expected. Instrumentally, Van Halen is still one of the slickest, most powerful machines in all of hard rock. And while Roth’s limited vocal range has shrunk down to glorified talk-scatting, his voice remains an integral part of the band’s sound. (Also, Wolfgang Van Halen must be complimented on his convincing impersonation of Anthony’s pivotal backing vocals.) All of this is surprisingly, even shockingly, true. And yet: What does it matter? Van Halen reuniting with Roth is the equivalent of 10 Arrested Development movies for arena-rock fans. But aren’t there at least 20 songs those people would rather see live than the new “Honeybabysweetiedoll”?
The nagging sense that A Different Kind Of Truth is an unnecessary excuse for Van Halen to tour with Roth again is probably the biggest strike against it. Nobody expects (or perhaps even wants) Van Halen to be a creatively active institution again. The public is more than happy to hear “Panama” and “Runnin’ With The Devil” in concert and pay handsomely for the privilege. (Not that Truth is necessarily all “new” material; as Roth recently confessed to the Los Angeles Times, the band reworked ancient songs that pre-date its 1978 debut for the album. So really, Van Halen is playing a bunch of oldies from the ’70s onstage and on record this year.)
The pre-release coverage of Truth has focused on Roth returning to the Van Halen fold, but after playing the album several times, something that should’ve been obvious but has been curiously forgotten once again becomes abundantly clear: Eddie Van Halen is the best goddamn guitar player on the planet. Even after losing part of his tongue, even after hip replacement surgery, even after rehab, even after that Sammy Hagar book made him look like a hobo subsisting on a steady diet of red wine and Domino’s Pizza—Eddie Van Halen can still make his guitar sound like the world’s finest symphony orchestra blasting through outer space at a million miles per hour.
You want a reason for A Different Kind Of Truth to exist? How about the fact that Eddie Van Halen hasn’t made a record in 14 years? That’s a long time for the best at what he does to not be doing what he does. Yes, he’s toured a few times; once with Hagar in 2004, and then with Roth in 2007 and ’08. And Gene Hackman probably still recites inspirational lines from Hoosiers on occasion at parties; it still sucks that he hasn’t made a movie since 2004.
Fortunately, Eddie doesn’t appear to have lost any speed in his fingers. The guitar solo on “Big River” attempts to cram the dynamics of his game-changing instrumental “Eruption” into the space of several breathtaking seconds. On “As Is,” he oscillates between filthy sludge, pyrotechnic tapping, and stinging country-blues licks. And “Outta Space” exhibits his signature ability to be heavy and fleet-footed at the same time—like a tank with the engine of a 747 that’s driven by Vin Diesel.
At 13 songs, Truth would be 25 percent better if it lost 25 percent of its songs. The album’s middle third—the part between the rousing, Who-biting “Blood And Fire” and “Outta Space”—sags due to a deficit of hooks and tunefulness. (Though one of those songs, “The Trouble With Never,” should have lent its title to the record.) But even when the songs aren’t great, Truth almost always sounds great. On “China Town,” also known as “the song where Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sounds like an Atari 2600,” the main attraction isn’t the chorus but the way Eddie locks into Alex Van Halen’s furious, double bass drum pummeling. (Oh yeah, forgot to mention this: Alex Van Halen remains a thoroughly kick-ass drummer.)
A Different Kind Of Truth might not be an all-time Van Halen album, or have any songs that belong on a best-of mix-tape. (Though, seriously, “Blood And Fire” is at least worth a look.) But after so many years of fumbling dysfunction that reduced the once-proud Van Halen name to a laughingstock, A Different Kind Of Truth matters because it’s a reminder of why this band mattered. And yes, Roth deserves some of the credit for that. For whatever reason, when Roth is in the band, Eddie Van Halen plays guitar like the world wants him to play guitar. Even if he’s doing it purely out of spite, so the other guy doesn’t get all the spotlight—well, sometimes that’s the very thing that makes great bands great. Together, Eddie and Diamond Dave have achieved a simple yet hard-to-pull-off goal with A Different Kind Of Truth: sounding like the Van Halen we (want to) remember.