It’s the unofficial Thirteenth Law of Rock and Roll: The band will always get back together. No matter how bitter the breakup, how unnecessary the reunion or how fraught the peace. Case in point: The first new David Lee Roth-fronted Van Halen album in 28 years, “A Different Kind of Truth,” which appears to have been assembled with the diplomatic skills of a team of UN negotiators and all the passion of a proctological exam.
And yet. How can you not love it now that it’s here, if only for the sheer unlikelihood of its existence? Most legacy acts limit themselves to reunion tours (Van Halen and Roth did this already, in 2007, and will tour again this year) without the added bother of recording new material that no one wants to hear, anyway. So it’s even more of an accomplishment that Roth and the Van Halen brothers, the Hatfields and McCoys of dead-eyed ’80s uber-metal, have (a) actually recorded an album of new material and (b) managed to do so without killing each other.
“Different Truth” is keyed more towards the frenetic, adrenal whomp of the first two “Van Halen” albums than to the synthy Top 40 buzz of later hits such as “Jump.” It’s a hard rock album with the flimsiest of melodic pop underpinnings, not, as was once the band’s wont, the other way around. It finds its groove as it goes along and ends up better than it started, mostly because it started with “Tattoo,” the lukewarm and awkward first single that’s a record company lifer’s idea of What The Kids Are Listening To.
The Van Halen brothers are still impossibly good at all the things they used to be good at, Roth slightly worse. His voice, once a gymnastic wonder, now seems more comfortable on heavy numbers in lower registers, which, coincidentally or not, is where much of “Truth” resides. He seems a strange creation now, a flashier and hollower Almost Dave, less resembling the original David Lee Roth than a DLR impersonator the Van Halens met one night at a strip club.
Most songs exert a strong nostalgic pull. “Stay Frosty,” an acoustic blues track that segues into a hard rock number, exists for no other reason than to remind everyone how great its early analog, “Ice Cream Man,” still sounds. Some songs are actually from their early days: The slight “She’s the Woman,” somehow both volcanic and fluffy, is one of several first-rate tracks reworked from pre-fame demos.
“Truth” is serviceable in some places, as great as could be hoped for in others, and probably bound for an ignoble fate either way. Present-day fans will use even its best songs as an opportunity to visit the arena’s concession stand between versions of “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Hot for Teacher.” Future generations will see it as a curiosity, a souvenir from that brief, shining moment (six months? A year?) when Van Halen and Diamond Dave were back together and no one pressed charges.
Van Halen will perform March 28 at Verizon Center.
Stewart is a freelance writer.
“You and Your Blues,” “Big River,” “She’s the Woman”