A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH: ON VAN HALEN, CREATIVITY VERSUS COMMERCE, AND THE MYTH OF THE LEGACY-DESTROYING REUNION
I know a lot of people are bummed that Van Halen’s long awaited reunion with David Lee Roth, A Different Kind of Truth, consists largely, or maybe even primarily, of old demos that the band re-worked; what I don’t understand is why these fans are bummed. But my guess is that they’re mistaking the reunion for an act of creativity, when it is, in fact, an act of commerce.
Of this, there can be no doubt. DLR and Eddie Van Halen still need to be kept as far apart as possible at all times, for crying out loud. These guys didn’t finally get back into a room together because they felt that they still had great, relevant contributions to make to the world of hard rock. They did it because they’re not getting any younger, and there are millions and millions of dollars to be made. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to enjoy the reunion for what it is; I’ve certainly enjoyed it. It does mean, however, that you need to change your expectations.
Since it’s an act of commerce and not creativity, A Different Kind of Truth does not need to prove that, in 2012, Van Halen can still write albums as good as Fair Warning or Diver Down. It just means that they need to preserve their legacy — to make an album by which they need not feel embarrassed and fans need not feel disappointed (or, perhaps more fittingly, cheated). It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, and it doesn’t have to feel overly “modern” — if Van Halen had released their version of Generation Swine, we’d all be pissed, and rightfully so. (And, besides, they kind of did that already.) A Different Kind of Truth just needs to be an album that allows the band to tour and sell a lot of overpriced merchandise, and gives fans an excuse to party like it’s 1984 and buy a lot of overpriced merchandise.
That being the case, let me ask you this: how is re-working demos written when the band members were still in their prime NOT pretty much the best idea ever? If the members of Van Halen were honest with themselves and said “Hey, y’know what? We do not have another ‘Unchained’ or ‘Hot for Teacher’ in us right now. We know that because we’ve heard our latter-day stuff. But these songs are pretty good and they sound like the old Van Halen and most people have never heard ’em, so let’s just polish those up and release ’em.” GENIUS! It spares us all a Saints of Los Angeles or a Death Magnetic or a Rihanna collaboration or whatever awful idea the band might have otherwise pursued. More legacy bands should use this approach if possible.
Truth isn’t the greatest record ever, and as far comeback albums go, I don’t think it can hold a candle to Black Gives Way to Blue or Traced in Air. But it’s not at all bad, either — on the contrary, it’s pretty good.
And maybe that should seem surprising… but it isn’t.
How did this myth that new albums by reunited bands will almost certainly fail to live up to their legacies begin? I’m not blaming people for buying into it — I bought into it until recently. I mean, it certainly sounds right. You can never go home again. That time has passed. What you make now will be inferior or different or inferior and different to what you made then. You’re just gonna rape our youthful memories, you bastards.
But how many reunion albums* actually ARE that terrible? Off the top of my head, here are a bunch of shitty ones…
- Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus
- Poison’s Power to the People, which is pretty much the worst album ever, but Poison were never really good anyway and I say that as someone who likes their old albums, so seriously who was bummed about this?
- Mötley Crüe’s Generation Swine
- Mötley Crüe’s Saints of Los Angeles
- Jane’s Addicition’s Strays, which probably isn’t even as bad as I remember it being.
- Velvet Revolver’s Contraband, which isn’t really a reunion album, and which a lot of people actually love, and which also probably isn’t even as bad as I remember it being.
- Alice in Chain’s Black Gives Way to Blue
- Cynic’s Traced in Air
- Testament’s The Formation of Damnation
- Iron Maiden’s Brave New World
- Anthrax’s Worship Music
- Exodus’ Tempo of the Damned
- Brutal Truth’s Evolution Through Revolution
- Autopsy’s Macabre Eternal
- Living Colour’s Collideoscope
- Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth
- Heaven & Hell’s The Devil You Know
- Cavalera Conspiracy’s Inflikted (assuming you consider a reunion album — see Velvet Revolver, above)
- Slayer’s Christ Illusion — I’m putting this one last because I know a lot of people hate it, but I think those people are nuts.
Even if we take into account that, surely, some people will disagree with my assessment of which of these releases are “good” or “bad” — that’s a pretty good ratio of quality to crap, right? Hell, some of those not-good reunion releases are still preferable to St. Anger or “Crush ‘Em!” The bands that never take a break get tired and run out of ideas; the bands that scurry off and do something else for awhile come back with fresh new ideas, or, at least, the ability to continue to successfully re-create the old ones.
So the odds are THAT GOOD that At the Gates or Faith No More or Carcass or even fucking Repulsion have another really cool album in them, and we’re all sitting around going, “NO! DON’T DO IT!”
We behave as fools.
*In this instance, I’m defining “reunion albums” as any album on which a broken-up band got back together, OR a key member who had quit/been fired/whatever returned to the fold.