VAN HALEN – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991 Warner Bros.)
What a frustrating experience this album was for me. This was supposed “the one”; the album that would please the DLR fans and finally unite Van Halen fandom. Heavier with only one ballad, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was to be a statement. Edward Van Halen had said that neither 5150 nor OU812 were ever properly finished to his liking. In both cases, the band were under pressure to get out there and tour (OU812 because of the 1988 Monsters of Rock). F.U.C.K. was to be the album that he finally got to spend time on and properly finish. It was also Eddie’s first album using his new Ernie Ball guitars. I expected my brain to be blown.
And it was, or it was by the first single at least. “Poundcake” lived up to the promise. Sure, lyrically it was…well, pretty stoopid, but musically? Van Halen had some balls back! This motherfucker grooves like a slow train. As far as guitar tricks went, Eddie went all out with harmonics, taps, and…drills? The shimmery guitars were subtly different from Eddie’s classic “brown sound”, but a guitar sound is an ever-evolving quest. On this song, his rhythm guitar tones recall his friend, Brian May. With “Poundcake” as a first single, I couldn’t wait to hear the whole album.
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I was given the CD (same copy I still have) on my birthday in ’91, by childhood friend Bob. I still remember popping the CD in for the first time that afternoon. Then a few days later it was given to me again (this time on cassette) by my Aunt and Uncle!
Momentum is maintained on the second track, “Judgement Day”, heavier than the first. The riff is anchored by a whammy bar trick, and it’s tasty. I cannot find fault with “Judgement Day”. This is what I wanted and hoped for from the new Van Halen album. The groove is still there, Alex and Mikey gelling in a relentless way. Sonically, both guys are recorded better than ever. The bass and drums on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge are really something to behold.
Then, things slide. The awful “Spanked” is the worst song on the album, and possible contender for worst Van Hagar song yet. “All you bad bad boys, call her up on the spank line,” sings Sammy with a straight face. The sad thing is, the song would have been a fine instrumental, or basis for something with David Lee Roth. Sammy ruins it with shitty lyrics and a shitty melody. Too bad. “Runaround” is a good song on first and second listen, but you tire of it quickly. It’s bland, as is much of F.U.C.K. The problem with “going heavy” for an album is the risk of losing diversity and texture.
The 7-minute “Pleasure Dome” can barely be called a song. Organized chaos with some lead vocals, yes. But it’s barely a song. There are moments of brilliance contained within (the drums in particular) but it’s not particularly worthy. And this was the side closer.
As crappy as “Spanked” is, “In ‘N’ Out” is virtually a carbon copy. It has some sparkling guitars to go with it, but like “Spanked”, the song sucks. I can’t believe somebody didn’t say, “Guys, let’s cut the album down to 9 tracks like we used to do, and leave those two for B-sides”. “Man On a Mission” isn’t much improved. Just dull rock with dumb lyrics. Totally uninspired. It’s just four guys playing music without much direction other than, “turn it up!”
Things change up a little bit on “The Dream is Over”. This also-ran isn’t a bad tune, though nowhere near single quality for Van Halen. It’s at least a step in the right direction. It feels as if the album was in a slumber, and it has now woken up — the title is apt. And thankfully Sammy isn’t singing about girl parts for a change.
Van Halen didn’t consider “Right Now” to be a ballad, but it’s the only song with a keyboard. It’s a welcome oasis in the desert of monotonous rock. It’s a great song. I don’t think anyone can say that it hasn’t been played to death, so I don’t need to comment further. MTV awards, Pepsi, blah blah blah.
“316” (named for Wolfy’s birthday 3/16/1991) is an acoustic guitar part that Eddie had been playing live for years. Later, Eddie used to play this piece for Wolfgang while still in the womb. But it’s just a brief 90 second instrumental, a segue into “Top of the World”, also a single. It took a while for me to recognize the riff. In fact, I didn’t pick up on it until I heard this song following “Jump” on the album LIVE: Right here, right now. Only then did I realize: it’s based on the outro riff from “Jump”! So they re-used that oft-forgotten riff and built a new song around it. It’s a good song, very pop rock, but a suitable album closer.
As high as this album charted (US #1), I’m convinced For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is one of the albums responsible for the death of hard rock in 1991. Sure, a lot of people bought it. But a lot of people also didn’t like it very much. Maybe they were getting tired of the schtick, but I do know I found it really hard to proudly blast this album out of the car.