So ... A Different Kind of Truth.
It's a record, man.
Let me open by saying that this is not a good name for an album. (It's not a terrible name, but worse than a simple number or a series of numbers and not much better than a combination of numbers and capital letters.) I should also add that I've read many reviews of this album and I agree with most of them; in other words, I think this album is better than I expected (and certainly better than most reunion efforts), but not as strong as any of the old Van Halen records I traditionally adore. A Different Kind of Truth is really two EPs: Five (or maybe 5 ˝) songs reworked from 1976, and eight (or maybe 7 ˝) songs that are new creations. The conventional wisdom suggests the '76 songs are awesome and the new songs are adequate, and this (of course) is roughly true. What's most surprising about the fresh songs is how reminiscent they are of David Lee Roth's solo career: "Blood and Fire" and (the excellent) "You and Your Blues" really belong on 1988's Skyscraper. "As Is" has an Eat'em and Smile vibe (even the guitar playing). "Tattoo" feels like the third single off A Little Ain't Enough, and "Stay Frosty" is uncomfortably close to 1998's DLR Band. I'm not sure how this happened; it's entirely possible that Roth has more musical ideas (and more force of personality) than most people give him credit for.
I realize everyone wants to compare and contrast A Different Kind of Truth to the rest of VH's catalog,1 but that's the wrong prism to employ. The two better metrics are literal (i.e., how the old songs compare to their original incarnations) and hypothetical (i.e., how the new songs compare with whatever one imagined they had the potential to be). First, the old stuff: The tracks sound good, but not as good as the '76 demos. This is not because the band got worse; in most ways, they got better. But modern albums don't sound the way they did in 1976, and particularly not recordings that were produced as cheaply as that 10-track demo. The most crucial aspect of Van Halen — more than the virtuosity or the attitude or the cocaine — is Eddie Van Halen's guitar tone. It's the most jarringly singular post-Hendrix guitar tone anyone has ever produced (EVH calls this the "brown sound," which never seemed accurate to me ... but it's his sound to name). The finest Eddie Van Halen tones are found on 1978's Van Halen, 1979's Van Halen II, and those '76 demos (now referred to as "Van Halen Zero" in bootleg circles). The fact that he can still shred is secondary. Rolling Stone critic and Grantland contributor Jon Dolan once told me that the core problem with Eddie Van Halen was that his solos were "way too Astroturf," and I begrudgingly understand what he means — at times, there is an inflexible, synthetic aftertaste to all the finger-tapping and pinballing. Either by accident or on purpose, Eddie galvanized the universal belief in metal circles that playing fast was the only way to prove you were playing well (a collective assumption that lasted from the summer of '79 until the advent of Slash). Sometimes his competence is repetitive. But his leads are almost always propulsive, and you can't really criticize his tone; the only thing you can say is that sometimes that tone is better and sometimes that tone is worse. And it was better in '76 (at least to me). It was better when it was analog. I also find the group's decision to change the lyrics on those old songs a little ridiculous. Why turn a song called "Big Trouble" into "Big River"? What is the purpose of twisting the phrase "Put Out the Lights" into "Beats Workin'"? Such adjustments aren't a crime (obviously), and the band can do whatever they want (obviously). But it's clearly not fooling anyone, and it raises a lot of unnecessary questions. For example, they did not change the title of "She's the Woman". Is this because that particular message is somehow more meaningful, or is it because the phrase "She's the Phantom" never occurred to anyone in the studio?
Still, it must be said: These are competitive songs. They're loose, effortlessly heavy, and better than anything the band has made since "Cabo Wabo." I suppose some will argue it's cheating to rely on old stuff, but that makes no sense. Is there anyone on the planet who feels Eddie Van Halen isn't inventive enough? This is not something that needs validation.
Which brings us to the new stuff.
It's not great. That doesn't mean it's awful or humiliating or anything to get upset about — it just means that none of this new material is within the airspace of "Panama." It's not MJ with the White Sox, but it's MJ with the Wizards at the end of a six-game road trip. The playing is tight, because Van Halen would never release an album that wasn't hyper-professional. But a song like "Honeybabysweetiedoll" is just overstuffed with notes. It's more impressive than enjoyable. This is my theory: When Sammy Hagar wrote his autobiography and described Eddie and Alex Van Halen as broken, booze-filled corpses (he compared EVH's home with Valerie Bertinelli to the mansion from Grey Gardens), it motivated Eddie to get clean and re-crush society. The power of spite fueled his desire to prove he was still Godzilla. And — to his credit — he does seem totally recovered. The intro on "China Town" is like a condensed, economical version of the opening to "Mean Streets." So why don't I like it more than I do? Probably because it actually is what it sounds like — a condensed, economical, conscious replication of something that used to be an organic extension of his genius. It's no one's fault. Eventually, everyone becomes who they always were.
As for the rest of the group: Wolfie Van Halen gets an "A" and Alex Van Halen gets an
"A-," but only because we're grading on a curve and AVH has never performed poorly on any song I've ever heard. Roth's effort is tougher to quantify. Whenever you write about Dave, there's always an unspoken responsibility to note his "limitations as a vocalist," but that misses the point. That's an issue for American Idol. Gary Cherone had very few "vocal limitations," and nobody in North America likes Van Halen III. Nobody likes John Corabi more than Vince Neil or Steelheart more than Hole or Stick It To Ya more than Powerage. Roth sounds the way the singer from Van Halen is supposed to sound, so he only competes with himself. He is, as we're all well aware, exceptionally adroit at talking over the breakdown. Sometimes he can be self-indulgent, although that's kind of like accusing Newt Gingrich of being too political. To a degree, Dave gets a lifetime pass just for proving that humans like himself can exist in reality. The only way he could ruin a Van Halen album would be by not participating.
I'll be as straightforward as I possibly can: I don't know what I'm trying to express here. My feelings are mixed to the point of being meshed. Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, "This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless." My actual sentiment is closer to, "This is a good album, but I just don't like it, no matter how much I try." And I'm disappointed in myself for feeling that way, somehow, which only proves that the things I understand most will always confuse me forever.
The Van Halen catalog can be broken down into units of two; every release has a companion record. The first two (Van Halen and Van Halen II) are borderline unbeatable. The '78 debut is almost like Are You Experienced? for two reasons: The first is that it now seems closer to a greatest hits collection; the second is that it's retrospectively impossible to grasp how new and explosive the guitar sounds must have seemed when heard for the first time. Personally, I like Van Halen II a little better, but that's mostly due to "Dance the Night Away" and "D.O.A." (and also because I'm the kind of person who tends to like second albums more than first albums). The next two records (1980's Women and Children First and '81's Fair Warning) are so profoundly interchangeable that I can never remember which albums contain which songs. If they'd just taken the 12 best tracks from both releases and made them into one LP, it would probably be the greatest hard rock album ever made. Women and Children First is the VH album with the most confusing punctuation ("Everybody Wants Some!!"). Fair Warning is darker and features "Unchained," the all-time favorite tune of Pamela "Teach Me to Kill" Smart. The next two are for dancing: Diver Down (which nobody likes but me) and 1984 (which everyone likes, even if they're boring). Diver Down is 40 percent covers and 100 percent Twix bars. 1984 is technically the band's high point, but in the same way that Dr. Feelgood was the high point for Motley Crue: It's the biggest and the smartest and the most fully realized, which really means it's geared toward people who don't care that much. Roth left the band soon after and put out Eat 'Em and Smile, probably the third- or fourth-best American album of 1986. That same year, Van Halen added Sammy Hagar and released 5150, which I hated hated hated at the time (but have slowly come to deeply appreciate). The title track has aged especially well, and so has "Best of Both Worlds" and "Summer Nights." [Side note: You know, I often think about how close Van Halen came to replacing Roth with Patty Smyth, best known for her work in Scandal. She was post-Dave option no. 1. Had they actually done this, everything we think about Van Halen would be different. They would be viewed as forward-thinking pioneers, and all the crass sexuality on their early albums would be reconsidered and recontexualized. They would be critically unassailable, regardless of how the music might have turned out.] The second Hagar record was OU812, which has its share of apologists. It's not remotely metal; sometimes it's barely rock, but those are the best parts. The next two projects (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and the live Right Here, Right Now) made the band appear bored with their own material. The last Hagar album (1995's Balance) is totally without merit; it has a song about smoking pot ("Amsterdam") that actually sounds worse when you're high. I think I listened to Van Halen III about as many times as I listened to tUnE-yArDs. Add a few anthologies and that's the whole cookie. If forced to place everything in order of value, I'd throw A Different Kind of Truth somewhere around the high end of the low middle.