2.5 stars (out of 4)
Van Halen gets back to the business of being Van Halen on its first new album since the 20th Century, “A Different Kind of Truth” (Interscope).
After more than a decade of revolving-door singers (three to be exact: Sammy Hagar, David Lee Roth, and for a brief time, someone named Gary Cherone), three-quarters of the original lineup is intact, with Roth back as the mouthpiece. He is associated with the California quartet’s best and most enduring music, but he hasn’t been involved in any full-length studio albums since 1984, so the new album has built-in nostalgia value for the band’s dedicated audience.
Roth, alongside guitarist Eddie Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen, doesn’t disappoint the fans by trying to mature or reinvent himself. The boys with crow’s feet and bum hips have made an album that speaks to the inner 16-year-old of their audience, re-creating a fantasy land defined by mullets, muscle cars and first visits to strip clubs. It is an album made by men who have been through enough petty ups-and-downs to fill a couple of soap opera seasons, and who still haven’t reconciled with their original bassist, Michael Anthony, choosing instead to play with the namesake guitarist’s 20-year-old son, Wolfgang.
They are as we remember them: a bottom end that evokes a factory full of big oil drums being battered; choruses that sound like a street gang shouting at their neighbor to turn UP the volume; production that tries to turn it all into a big, overwhelming fist punching through the dashboard radio.
Eddie Van Halen still plays like a cooped-up stallion busting out of his stall. He’s relentless, and when he gets just the slightest bit of room to gallop, he takes over with the kind of jaw-dropping dexterity and imagination that obliterate some of the qualms about Van Halen’s stolid, bar-band-on-steroids approach. The punky velocity of “Bullethead,” the industrial-strength heaviness of “As Is” (also a showcase for Alex Van Halen’s thunder drums), the thrill-ride solos in “China Town” are all built for long drives in the shag-carpeted boogie van of your choice.
There’s one more ingredient that makes “A Different Kind of Truth” an improvement over just about any Van Halen album of the last 25 years: Quirkiness. What once upon a time made Van Halen unique in the progression of metal and hard rock (besides Eddie’s prowess as a guitarist) was its sense of fun, its willingness to be not just over the top, but weird. This was a hallmark of the Roth era, and it was greatly missed in the band’s recordings since his departure. Roth’s ability to laugh at himself drains a bit of the testosterone and replaces it with merry prankster mirth. “Stay Frosty” is the kind of back-porch shuck and jive that Roth used to drop into early Van Halen albums, and his vagabond blues still feels like self-deprecating parody.
“How deep does a rabbit hole go?” he asks during a tour of his acid-dipped psyche in “The Trouble With Never.” The song includes a spoken-word interlude that pretty much sums up a spandex-wearing singer’s philosophy of life: “Selective amnesia is only a heart beat away.”
No telling how many sins, perceived or real, Roth and the Van Halens had to forget to make this reunion possible. But they’re still frisky enough to make a big, bold noise to light up an arena, and they’re laughing while they do it. Humor can redeem almost anything, even a late-career Van Halen comeback album.