Okay, first things first. Before you do anything else with OU812, flip it over and cue up “Source of Infection,” the opening salvo on side two (you CD fiends can just program track 5), and let ‘er rip. While Eddie Van Halen sprays you with a machine-gun succession of speed-metal-guitar arpeggios, Sammy Hagar sends out the party invitations with his usual savoir-faire — “Hey! All right! Whoo!” Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony, of course, take him at his word, shooting into hyper-beat space before you can say, “Jump.”
So there you have it. Two years down the trail from 5150 and the advent of the Hagar Years, the rage remains the same. Van Halen, contrary to purist grumbling, did not wimp out when Diamond Dave hit the bricks. Nor did the band go — ugh! — pop: the 5150 ladies’ choice “Why Can’t This Be Love” wasn’t really a ballad; it was more like Big Rock Melancholia. In fact, all the 5150-model Van Halen did was replace one mighty mouth with another and trot out some hip, new songwriting tricks. “Source of Infection,” an A-bomb blast of sass ‘n’ thrash in the great VH tradition of “I’m the One” (Van Halen) and “Hot for Teacher” (1984), should be proof enough that Van Halen can still waaaagh like no other arena-stadium combo on the planet.
Still even Van Halen recognizes there is more to life than waaaagh. Not much more, to be sure. The better part of OU812 (as in “Oh, you ate one, too”) is about nothing more complicated than the horizontal rumba, with Anthony on bass and the Van Halen brothers cranking out high-decibel bump and grind behind Hagar’s spirited play-by-play.
The album actually commences, though, with a rare stab at spirituality, in “Mine All Mine.” Lyrically, it’s basically a shorthand self-help sermon (“Stop lookin’ out Start lookin’ in Be your own best friend”). But the arrangement — with Eddie’s chordal chunks of almost jazzy guitar, the migraine throb of the beat backfield, a moody keyboard glaze and the boys’ sunny background oohing during the melodic bended-knee breaks — speaks volumes about the band’s desire to find new ways of making the old noise.
The curve balls, though, don’t always hit the strike zone. “Finish What Ya Started” is an unexpected turn into wheat-field-rock country. Eddie tones down his six-string slashing into a kind of Ry Cooder-country-blues cluck, and the song — with its relaxed air of acoustic understatement — is a nice breather from the album’s dominant monster stomp. But it skirts a little too close to Mellencamp turf to be convincing and lacks a knockout hook, a particularly noticeable handicap with the volume turned down so low.
On the other hand, the Hagar incarnation of Van Halen has gotten quite good at whacking out high-potency, mush-free love songs. While “Feels So Good” and “When It’s Love” are admittedly cut from the same cloth as “Why Can’t This Be Love,” it’s still a good fit — broad synthesizer strokes edged with heavy-metal menace, easygoing choruses accented with a hard-pumping bottom — and preferable to the pseudo-sensitive malarkey peddled by Mötley Crüe and Whitesnake in their reflective moments.
Van Halen, in either incarnation, has never made any pretensions to sensitivity. The only difference is that David Lee Roth was a master of sexual punning and wink-wink-nudge-nudge innuendo. Sammy Hagar isn’t quite so evasive: when he bellows, “Slip n’ slide, push it in,” in the unrepentantly raunchy “Black and Blue,” you can bet he’s not singing about changing the oil filter in his car. If your taste runs to great love sonnets like Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song,” you’ll certainly dig “Cabo Wabo,” a slow blues fantasy of sex and surf south of the border, in which Hagar makes the mere act of drinking tequila sound like an Olympic event (“We drink mescal right from the bottle/Salt shaker, little lick o’lime, ohhh”).
And if you have serious reservations about white blues machismo (so who wants to hear Shakespeare at 120 decibels?), remember that the Van Halen experience has never been so much about what the band says as how it says it. Frankly, Hagar could be singing excerpts from the Los Angeles Yellow Pages, a Chinese-restaurant menu or the Penthouse letters section.
OU812, like the best VH vinyl, is about the thrill of extremes — Eddie’s daredevil guitar science, Sammy’s Tarzan howl, getting your chest shoved in by Alex’s hammering double bass drums. “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” says it all, really. Sorry, kids, this “A.F.U.” stands for “all fired up,” not “all fucked up,” and it’s about getting high on nothing more (or less) than rock’s primal scream. It is full of that unmistakable Van Halen waaaagh, punctuated by heart-stopping time changes, and in the middle break Eddie and Sammy go into a combined guitar-vocal shriek that harks back to the old Plant-Page banshee duets of Zeppelin lore.
Considering that it’s been a whole decade since Van Halen first struck platinum, maybe Eddie and company haven’t been pushing the envelope, so to speak, far enough in terms of songwriting. But “Mine All Mine” is a good teaser for the future, the slow stuff is classy radio fare, and at its best, OU812 is a veritable feast of great white rock & roll wow. Quit beefing about the naughty bits and chow down.