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Van Halen’s first new studio album with David Lee Roth in 28 years is named “A Different Kind of Truth,” but the Feb. 7 release could have just as easily been called “I Will Not Go Quietly” “Truth” is a heavy slab of rock delivered on a concrete pillow.
As fans already know, most of the riffs/ideas for the new tunes are from never-finished songs of yore: “She’s The Woman” is from a tune originally demoed in the ‘70s, while obsessive fans instantly noted the similarity between first single “Tattoo” and “Down In Flames,” a 1977 song played live, but never released on an album. Roth told the Los Angeles Times that the band sought to link its past with its present by taking the most promising chunks of coal from four decades ago and polishing them into diamonds.
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That sets up the challenge inherent in the John Shanks-produced “Truth”: how to create an album that doesn’t sound like retreads. And to Van Halen’s credit, the band largely succeeds, but there are some serious gaps.
The good new (actually the great news) first: Eddie Van Halen lets loose on some riffs on “Truth” that will make longtime fans cry with joy. If he’s no longer in tip-top form, he’s still close enough that there are many moments throughout the album to dazzle Eddie wanna-bes. Plus, there seems to be no style that he doesn’t pull off here. If you’re an Eddie acolyte, you will not be disappointed. Alex Van Halen thumps the drums a plenty: just check out the crunchy opening of “As Is” to hear the brothers VH spreading some of that genetic magic that siblings seem to mysteriously share (and check out Eddie’s solo around 2:20). Roth’s voice is not the soaring, singular rock wonder that it used to be, but he’s still got plenty of horsepower under the hood and he’s not afraid to unleash it.
The bad news is the songs are largely hookless. There are great hints and ideas that trail off into nothingness or into guitar solos to distract from the fact that the song is on a bullet train to nowhere. For example, “Blood And Fire” opens to exciting promise with light, very catchy playing by Eddie and a strong verse filled with harmonies, but there’s never a sturdy enough chorus to hang any of it on, so instead, Eddie shifts into a ripping solo. It’s exhilarating, but can’t they do both any more?
Too often, in what perhaps is emblematic of their relationship, Eddie and Roth seems to be working on different songs and competing with each other instead of complementing. For example, Roth’s first words on “China Town” are a take-off on the most famous New York Post headline of all time: “Headless body found in topless bar,” but the rest of the song is all Eddie’s, from his mad-scientist opening to breathtaking solos. Roth’s words never fit in with the song. They don’t need to be a lockstep on each song—for example, on “Outta Space,” Roth is going on about this Facebook page (yeah, that’s not going to sound dated), but whatever Eddie and Alex are doing around that works just fine, instead of fighting against it.
Many of the songs, including “Tattoo,” “The Trouble with Never,” “As Is,” “Frosty,” and “honeybabysweetiedoll,” feature spoken interludes by Roth. It reaches the level of parody on “The Trouble With Never,” an otherwise fine song (one of the album’s best), when Roth drops his voice down an octave to talk about his “wicked, wicked ways.” Sure, his talking break worked to iconic effect in “Panama,” but that’s not a device that wears well generally.
“Big River,” the album’s penultimate tune, sounds like everyone’s finally rowing the same way, plus it has a “Runnin’ With the Devil” opening vibe. Great vocals by Roth, inspired playing by Alex, and guitar wizardry by Eddie all meld into something strong.
The Van Halens and Roth throw every guitar lick and vocal yelp that made someone love the band 30 years ago in here, but they’re competing with a mighty, mighty past. As I wrote earlier this week when reviewing Van Halen’s show in Los Angeles, the three new songs played that night fit in perfectly in concert as glue between the past hits and I don’t mean that as a diss. In some ways, that’s the very best they could have hoped for. Given all band’s past dramatics, “Truth” could have been a train wreck of epic proportion and it’s far from it, but it just has enough flashes of past brilliance to wish that the same care that seemed to go into the performances had gone into the songs.
Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitFixMelinda