“Told ya I was coming back … say you missed me … say it like you mean it,” David Lee Roth growls on “A Different Kind of Truth,” Van Halen’s first new album with Roth back in the fold since “1984.”
The truth is we did miss Diamond Dave, but his reunion with the famously combative band is a mixed affair that feels depressingly safe at a time when rock music could use a Red Bull blast.
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Perhaps the album’s biggest crime is its lack of fresh material. The bulk of the tracks are based on demos cut decades ago, robbing us of really knowing if the newly constituted Van Halen can measure up to its considerable shadow.
For guitar slinger Eddie Van Halen, the answer can be found in any number of solos slicing through the 13-track affair. Van Halen’s digits are aging quite nicely, thank you. The same can’t be said for Roth’s voice. His vocals rumble louder now, the notes he used to swat at with disdain now require a furrowed brow, at the very least.
And when he scat-sings on tracks like “Tattoo,” you can hear the wheels grinding in his mind – “what would I have said 30 years ago?”
“Truth” kicks off with “Tattoo,” a track which might have been the third or fourth single from a superior Van Halen effort of yore. The chorus isn’t as catchy as one hopes, and all that ink chatter feels stale. It’s still solid enough to earn some radio air time, and the song wears better than its accompanying video.
“She’s the Woman” is more like it, an unabashed rocker with few pretenses. “You and Your Blues” starts with Roth in a low, persuasive register before exploding into a fully satisfying anthem. Van Halen’s guitar chops away while Roth’s voice sounds the closest to its glory days as anywhere on the disk.
“China Town” is all rat-a-tat-tat guitar chords, while “Blood and Fire” sizzles with Roth’s aforementioned tease. Hey, he can still sell a sly come on, no matter what his birth certificate says.
“Stay Frost” is a novelty track with an edge, a reminder that the quartet never took itself too seriously. How refreshing in the era of Lady Gaga, M.I.A. and Katy Perry.
New songs by old bands are typically met with indifference during live shows, but “Big River” could easily stop a few Van Halen ticket buyers from hitting the loo.
“A Different Kind of Truth” makes no concessions to the passage of time or our auto-tuned musical age. It’s both refreshing an odd to see a band full of 50-somethings with so little to say about evolving musical tastes. The best we get are punchy lines like, “Love ’em all, and let Cupid sort ’em out.”
And that’s a shame, since it devalues the whole notion of a Van Halen reunion (minus bassist Michael Anthony, replaced here by Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s son). Even casual Van Halen fans must be curious to hear what the band has on its mind after so much has changed both in the culture at large and the music industry in general.
You won’t find much about either on “Truth.” It’s a time capsule of an album meant to evoke Reagan-era air guitars, not ruminations on our digital age.