Album review: Van Halen, ‘A Different Kind of Truth’ (Interscope)

February 14, 2012

As a skeptic even when Van Halen was in its hair-metal heyday more than three decades ago—spandex, sophomoric double entendres and hammer-on’s just never did much for me—it’s hard to share in the enthusiasm of critics and fans trumpeting that “Van Halen finally is back to being Van Halen” on its 12th studio album, its first in 14 years, and the first with David Lee Roth since 1984.

Ha! As if any vocalist could step into the shoes of Gary Cherone!

Sorry; couldn’t resist the joke. Truthfully, much more than Eddie Van Halen’s pointless pyrotechnics or his brother’s busy but leaden drumming, the chief merit of the band always was Diamond Dave’s ineffable enthusiasm. But it was one thing to appreciate the party-meister when he still was that older frat brother approaching a decade of cutting college classes, and it’s another when he’s the embarrassing great-uncle who dyes his hair, does bad magic tricks and tries hard to be the life of the party by doing splits on the dance floor that just leave you worried he’ll break a hip like Eddie, and here he is still seven years away from Medicare coverage.

Billed by Roth as “a collaboration with Van Halen’s past,” A Different Kind of Truth is more like a cynical exhumation, with six of the tunes dating from ’70s demos and the rest imitating them—except, that is, for “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” a down-tuned piece of studio experimentation that still is a decade behind the times, aping the regrettable wave of nu metal.

Dave does his Dave thing, proclaiming his lust for the shimmy and shake as stoopidly as he can, though thankfully he keeps things out of R. Kelly territory and age-appropriate. (“Swapmeet Sally/Trampstamp Kat/Mouse-wife to mom-shell in the time it took to get that new tattoo,” he howls in “Tattoo,” while elsewhere he extols the virtues of a “stone-soul sistah soccer mom/Muchacha-miga, cherry bomb!”) Meanwhile, Eddie runs up and down the fretboard with numbing and pointless virtuosity, Alex hammers his tubs, and 20-year-old Wolfgang fills in for Michael Anthony, no doubt swilling Red Bull instead of Jack Daniel’s.

If any of that sounds the least bit relevant or fun to you, no doubt it’s strictly as a nostalgia-trigger for your own lost, lamented era of what my colleague Greg Kot so evocatively called “mullets, muscle cars and first visits to strip clubs.” Yeah, well, maybe that characterizes his teens, but it sure doesn’t do justice to mine, and neither does this cynical comeback attempt.

Rating on the four-star scale: 1 star.