So it’s finally happened. After countless years in the wilderness, one of the great rock bands have put aside their differences and reunited. And by God, we’ve missed them. Back in the day their landmark debut squeezed rock ’n’roll into a lycra catsuit, moved guitar heroism along several evolutionary stages and invented hair metal along the way.
And some of the albums that followed weren’t too shabby either. But in recent years their A-list legacy has been tarnished by some truly D-list idiocy. Ever since showman-in-chief Dave Lee Roth flounced out in 1985, his erstwhile colleagues have redefined the idea of the revolving door membership with a bamboozling list of replacements: Sammy Hagar, Roth himself, Gary Cherone, Hagar again, Roth again. But here we are in 2012, half a decade after their last Roth reunion, and whatever filament is holding together these four titanic egos (well, three titanic egos and new bassist/junior partner in the family firm Wolfgang Van Halen) is apparently holding strong.
But initial omens didn’t bode well. Comeback single Tattoo was underwhelming: a slice of too-safe grown-up rock that was less front-page news and more Huey Lewis & The News. The game was nearly called off altogether when Roth rocked up onstage at an intimate club show in New York in brown overalls and matching cap. The man who once possessed the pizzazz of an Italian hooker was now dressing like an Italian plumber.
Apparently all that was a red herring, because A Different Kind Of Truth is as good a Van Halen album as you can expect in 2012. Certainly good enough an album to makes it sound like the last 27 years were all just a crazy dream. It’s not perfect mind, and its biggest flaw is that the album is the wrong way around – back-loaded with the best songs, leaving the opening salvo desperately wanting. The initial one-two-three of Tattoo, She’s The Woman and You And Your Blues are mid-paced rockers that feature guitars that chop and weave like drunken cartoon ninjas and patented Diamond Dave jibber-jabber about Chevy pick-up trucks, Casablanca gin-joints and ‘suburban garage-a-trois’. It’s exactly what you expect, minus that crucial ingredient: the magic.
All that changes four tracks in. Sometime around China Town the bell dings and these old champs finally shake off their stupors and come out fists flying. You can almost hear Eddie Van Halen waking up as he ushers it in with some reassuringly flashy guitar, while Roth serves it up like a downtime pimp, rapping about ‘a headless body in a topless bar/warring clans in downtown bars’. The pitch only intensifies with Bullethead, a 120mph energy burst introduced by a screaming solo and bearing a foot-to-the-floor lyrical sentiment. Sandwiched between the two is Blood And Fire, a summery shuffle that dials up the tongue-in-cheek self-reference. ‘Now look at all the people here tonight,’ growls Roth, barely suppressing a smirk.
From here on in, they’re home and free. The rest of the album is a blast. The steel-plated barrage of As Is nods back to Atomic Punk, then drops in a cod-lascivious mid-song rap from Roth for good measure. Honeybabysweetiedoll might deserve a red card for its title, but both the borderline avant garde intro and the grandly jagged chorus are as ominous as Van Halen get. On The Trouble With Never, Eddie twists and turns like spaghetti on a greasy fork, while Outta Space sees Roth hitting notes he’s not reached since his trousers squeaked.
There are still stumbles. The front porch blues of Stay Frosty is Ice Cream Man Redux, right down to the refrigerated title – the only difference is that it goes on for twice as long for half the effort. The utterly forgettable Big River isn’t so much filler as manky old grout between bathroom tiles, and you wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t here. But then they pull it back with Beats Workin’.
With all four of them in full-on showman mode, it’s the sort of playful, high-kicking, windmilling finale you willed them to close the album with. It’s just a shame they didn’t open with it, too. As far as comeback albums that feature a high proportion of rehashed 35-year-old demos go, A Different Kind Of Truth is as good as you could expect.
All the things you want from Van Halen are here, even if they take a little longer to get to than you’d like. After all the squabbling and upset, they’re finally pulling in the same direction and aiming to please – both us and each other.