Help! I’ve Fallen For Van Halen and Can’t Get Up

From open.salon.com:

I try to remain young at heart musically, or at least as young as my 61-year-old ears will allow me.  I check the websites Pitchfork, Stereogum and emusic regularly, and I will investigate the latest buzzed-about indie band (The Men’sOpen Your Heart sounds pretty good), the latest overhyped pop diva (Lana Del Rey – oy!), and any unknown-to-me musical genre, all hail Spotify.

The uncool news: I’m embarrassed to admit that my favorite current record is by Van Halen.

A Different Kind of Truth is the first record the band has recorded with original lead singer David Lee Roth since he was bounced from the band in 1985, not to mention Eddie Van Halen’s first since completing rehab in 2007.  I admit to a morbid anticipation, surprising since I was never a fan of the band.   You’d have to be deaf not to be impressed by Eddie’s solos, and Dave was an undeniable showman.  Hair metal, however, even their lighter version, never held any appeal to me.

The lead single, “Tattoo,” was not promising: synthesizer-driven and semi-catchy, it seemed a little tame and hinted at diminished energy.

The full album proved me wrong.  The rhythm section rocks hard and Eddie’s lead guitar stills shreds like a demon.  But I’m especially smitten with Diamond Dave’s lyrics.

 Is liking a Van Halen record for the words like buying Playboy for the articles? If so, guilty as charged.  When David Lee Roth takes the microphone, it’s like he is having his own little private joke with the world, and I’m giggling overhearing the conversation.  Here are some of his mots that I consider pretty bon:

“This song ain’t dirty / It’s really just the way we sing it”

“Some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant”

“Love ‘em all, I sez, let Cupid sort ‘em out”

“When you turn on your stereo, does it return the favor?”

“No light at the end of the tunnel, due to budget constraints.”

“When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

“How many roads must a man walk down before he admits he’s lost?”

“God is love, but get it in writing.”

“Go home, the Earth is full.”

“Yesterday I was a bum and broke, today I’m a star and broke / In this town that’s called progress.”

Add in references to other songs (“Ain’t goin’ down to no Crossroads, ain’t gonna Dust No Broom”), Casablanca gin joints, FAQs, texting, the “Headless Body in a Topless Bar” headline and his uncle’s union activism, and the lyric sheet is the inside of my head, where a random series of pop culture references, news headlines, silly jokes and inane platitudes fight a constant battle for supremacy.  Maturity has made Roth more appealing to me: less consumed with t & a now, he seems like the kind of curious, engaging guy with whom I’d enjoy downing a few brews.

Roth’s delivery adds to the fun.  Age has taken a few mph off his vocal fastball, but he makes up for it with a quirky, offhand delivery that pays only minimum attention to the melody and varies rapidly from heavy metal shrieks to deep-voiced narration, often tossing in non sequiturs like “Hello!” between the verses.  It’s a comedy stand-up act set to music and I love it.

I wondered: did I miss something all these years?  So I checked out their greatest hits record and no, I don’t think so.  I was familiar with the big songs (“Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Jump”) but few of the others seemed like candidates for my heavy rotation.  Compared to the new record, Roth seemed constrained by the songs’ structures.  If any song on the hits record indicates the sound on A Different Kind of Truth, it’s “Panama,” where Roth’s vocals wander off with a look-at-me vibe which probably led to his being kicked out of the band and replaced by vocalists who were sufficiently bland that they make the second half of the hits album a slog but allowed Eddie to remain the center of attention.

I also wondered: why now?  I immediately knew the answer, and it resides in the first paragraph of this post. I’ve been spending time listening to many of the new Pitchfork-approved young acts – Grimes, Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten, Burial, Frankie Rose – and they made me think the concept of pleasure had become obsolete.  Too many impenetrable lyrics, too many indifferent vocals, too many monotonous looped drum beats, too many unappealing low-fi productions.

In these hard times, I don’t want detachment, I want passion.  I want music that addresses our national situation, or entertaining music that makes me forget it, and Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth does the latter for me. I can head bang to the near-punkish “Bullethead” or I can chuckle at the partly acoustic “Stay Frosty,” in which Roth looks at spiritual pursuits with a glint in his eye. Dave and Eddie take turns showing off, and I’m happy to share the pleasure.

Or as Diamond Dave sings in “As Is,” “Let’s have some fun, so …”