Van Halen was one of the smartest, funniest, toughest bands around at the turn of the 1980s. Three decades later, the greatest fear surrounding a reunion was whether they could recreate any piece of that. And they did, all of it.
That they did so by returning to previously unissued scraps of songs from those glory days has been the subject of furious debate in the run up to the Feb. 7 release of A Different Kind of Truth, Van Halen’s first full-length project with David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen since 1984. (Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen has taken over for the departed original bassist, Michael Anthony.)
Listening, I kept thinking: What’s all the fuss about? Is there a more fertile period for this band than the late 1970s? And wasn’t that the sound fans wanted rekindled for this project? Further, and this seems the most germane thing of all, it’s nothing new for Van Halen: 1979′s Van Halen II included tracks that had been developed from demos recorded in 1976 by Kiss’ Gene Simmons and in 1977 by Ted Templeman, including “Beautiful Girls.” Similarly, “Hang ‘Em High” from 1982′s Diver Down was an update of “Last Night,” also found on those ’77 demos. “House of Pain,” from Van Halen’s most recent album with Roth 1984, traces its history back to initial sessions with Simmons, as well.
So, enough with the frowny face-emoticoned indignation. Stealing from themselves is old hat for Van Halen.
Whatever the impetus here, tracks like “China Town” and “The Trouble With Never” end up representing their own high points for the group, even at this late date. There, and elsewhere, you find new licks and new sounds, and a darker complexity, but also a break-neck attitude — familiar on records like 1981′s Fair Warning — that you worried was beyond Van Halen at this point.
It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (again recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). For instance, “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” with a title right out of a darkened saloon’s last-call come on, crunches and heaves like a old muscle car running a couple of quarts low on oil. Meanwhile, any questions about Wolfgang’s ability to keep up with dear old dad are answered during “China Town,” as the two dash through a swirling, pacemaker-smashing interlude.
Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in.
That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two. And, so you have “Tattoo,” which boasts all of the deviant allure that a great single from this band simply must possess. “Never” may be the best track here, with its Hendrix-inspired flame-kissed guitar signature, a classic crotch-grab Roth vocal (“when you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?”) and this stunningly deep groove led by Alex Van Halen. Later, “Blood and Fire” finds Roth howling with a robust vigor, as Eddie returns to the pop-metal vibe that propelled “Dance the Night Away.” Roth then positively skips through the scalding “Beats Workin,’” sounding like a man who simply couldn’t be happier to be back amongst friends. They even downshift for “Stay Frosty,” which fills the old acoustic-ditty-turned-peacock-rock slot that’s earlier been occupied by the likes of “Ice Cream Man” and “Little Guitars.”
Better than expected, Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth is a return to form in the most complete sense of the word. They sound — and, given the history of these tracks, that’s no surprise — like their old selves again. To complain about any of it seems to misunderstand not just the history of Van Halen, but also how much ass-shaking, riff-taking fun this record ultimately turns out to be.