There’s a message in the acronym that winks its way out of the title of Van Halen’s latest album, and it has nothing to do with sex. No, what the title really spells out is how easy it is for veteran pop stars desperate to seem outrageous to act like guests on Wayne’s World. Like, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, dude.
Of course, heavy metal typically has little use for subtlety, and Van Halen in particular has always played it significantly larger than life. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen isn’t just fleet of fingers — he has one of those Spinal Tap amplifiers where the volume goes up to eleven. The group’s original vocalist, David Lee Roth, was the spandex clown who put the tongue in Van Halen’s cheek; since Roth was replaced by Sammy Hagar, a better singer but much more pedestrian a frontman, the band has substituted an increasingly dense sound for a distinct personality.
One result is that For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is so stuffed with zigzagging guitars and blustery vocals that it almost forgets to rock. Eddie Van Halen, who probably has more guitars than teeth, upends such a tackle box of hooks that they only start to surface after repeated listenings. Tasteful simplicity, which is never really simple at all, would have proved a better course to follow. It didn’t take a second listen to recognize that “Jump,” from 1984, was — as it remains — Van Halen’s greatest hit.
A couple of songs manage to put a little bit of bounce into the bombast. “Top of the World,” cut from the same cloth as one of the band’s earlier radio anthems, “Dance the Night Away,” from 1979, is at the top of the heap. “The Dream Is Over” aspires to the same melodic lift but feels mannered, as if power tools were required to attach the chorus to the verse. Elsewhere, the guitars are busier, the beats are heavier, and the fun is fleeting. Van Halen has chops to burn, but For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, like its lumbering opening track and first single, “Poundcake,” is stale.