A different kind of authenticity
Aaron S. Bayley
February 7, 2012 marked the release of Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth, the first studio album by the band since 1997's ill-fated Van Halen III and the first with original frontman David Lee Roth since, well, 1984. With all the fuss over the fact that the album doesn't exactly consist of new material, but reworked tracks originally recorded as unreleased demos in the mid-1970s, it makes sense to ask: Can the new VH album be considered an "authentic" representation of Classic Van Halen?
First of all, if someone would have told me in 2008, after Van Halen's successful reunion tour with Roth, that the band was going back into the studio to record a new album based on old unreleased material, I would've said "Thank God." After all, I wasn't interested in hearing another "Me Wise Magic" or "Can't Get This Stuff No More," mediocre songs the band recorded with Roth back in 1996 for their Best of Both Worlds greatest hits album. Most fans of Van Halen want to hear new stuff that sounds like the old stuff--meaning the six classic albums recorded with Roth between 1978 and 1984. But ageing rockstars whose best days are behind them can't catch a break, it seems. When they attempt to write new material, the critics sound out in full force: "It's irrelevant. No one want to hear your new songs." When, in VH's case, they dip into the vault as an acknowledgment that perhaps they can't write songs the way they used to but still desire to recapture the magic of their heyday, they're lambasted for being out of fresh ideas. It is mostly music critics who are guilty of this double-standard. Die-hard VH fans know that Eddie Van Halen is never fresh out of ideas, that the band has reels and reels of jam sessions full of guitar riffs and forgotten gems. (One example: the main riff for the 1991 hit "Top Of The World" features a guitar part used at the end of 1984's "Jump"). In fact, Van Halen has done what their die-hard fans have wanted them to do for years--release songs from the 1977 demos on a new album.
To return to the question, is the new album authentic? That all depends on what we mean by the word "authentic." In The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter asks, "What counts as an authentic work of art? What threatens artistic authenticity? How can we tell the difference between art that is genuinely authentic and works that only seem so?" In the case of Van Halen, when an older, considerably less cool band tries to replicate a younger and more energetic version of itself by stealing from their own catalogue, is it still valid? Are we, as Potter asks, "worried about a discrepancy between what the artist seems to be doing and what he or she is actually up to"?
Let's first look at some tracks from A Different Kind Of Truth before we try to answer that question. With it's heavy, muddied, grunge-inspired production, the album is reminiscent of 1980's Women And Children First, the band's third release. In contrast to the band's earlier stripped down sound, the new album is beefier, and as a result Eddie's spontaneous, freewheeling fills--a highlight of any VH album--often get lost in the mix.
The album kicks off with the the mediocre "Tattoo," the bands' unfortunate choice of first single, presumably because of its radio-friendly pretensions. However, the party doesn't begin until the next track, "She's The Woman," an updated version from the '77 demos that is actually better than the original thanks to Roth's reworked lyrics. Wolfgang holds his own on bass and Eddie plays a tight riff based on an open A--keeping most of the fills he played in the demo intact--as Roth bellows, "I want to be your knight in shining pickup truck." Easily the closest the band comes to the Classic VH sound, this track could've appeared on either one of their first two albums. The third track, "You And Your Blues," features big, open chords and low, bluesy lyrics reminiscent of the Sammy Hagar era.
Tracks like "Chinatown" (which opens with Eddie tapping an ominous-sounding pattern using an octave pedal before Alex kicks in with the double-bass pedal), "Blood And Fire" (another reworked song that opens with clean guitar, segues into a sort of "Little Guitars" vibe and features Eddie's most inspired solo on the album), "As Is" (which begins with a heavy, dirge-like drone before Eddie rips into an acrobatic riff similar to "Sinner's Swing!" and "I'm The One"), "Honeybabysweetiedoll" (which features a tight, sexy riff in F# minor that would be at home on any of the band's first four albums), and "Big River" (with a pounding bass line reminiscent of "Runnin' With The Devil" and a surprisingly catchy chorus) are all strong compositions. "Stay Frosty," a poor attempt to recreate "Ice Cream Man," and "Beats Workin'" are two of the weakest tracks on an otherwise excellent album. Eddie Van Halen may not be playing his striped Frankenstrat as much as fans would like, but his guitar on Truth sounds very similar to the "brown sound" achieved on the earlier albums (although we could've done without Eddie's Crybaby pedal). Alex's snare and double bass are also in fine form; Roth, despite reliably whimsical lyrics, can no longer hit the hight notes, but he sounds better than most expected. There is no doubt that the band made a conscious effort to recapture the magic and recreate the Classic Van Halen sound that eludes them in middle age. As Roth himself stated, "It's material Eddie and I generated, literally, in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Usually fellas in our weight division...will try to hail back to it [but] keep a safe, mature distance from it."
So, is Truth authentic, given the fact that Van Halen is trying to copy an earlier version of itself? If we are to believe Potter, there is no such thing as authenticity in the first place. "Authenticity is a way of talking about things in the world, a way of making judgments, staking claims, and expressing preferences about our relationships to one another, to the world, and to things." But there is no such thing as an "authenticity detector." So how do we define "Classic VH"? Is it a sound, a fashion, a lifestyle that can only be generated at a particular moment in time? Is it a mixture of all of the above? If David Lee Roth reunited with the band in, say, 1989 and released an album worthy of its predecessors, would that have been considered Classic VH? The truth is, A Different Kind of Truth is exactly the kind of album the current lineup of Van Halen wanted to release. It is no less authentic for its intentions. Because Van Halen made no secret of the fact that their new album would feature reworked old material, they cannot be accused of being "up to" anything. Hence, if the "truth" in the album title refers to Classic VH, A Different Kind Of Truth really is a different kind of truth, and maybe even a different kind of youth, too.