Sunday, October 21, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 449: Alice Cooper

This is a random system I use for picking albums, but sometimes the coincidences can get a little weird.  This is my 5th Alice Cooper review in the last twenty albums and my 3rd in the last ten.  Given I have around 1,000 albums, that is a very unlikely situation.

Nevertheless, here we are.  And after a wild and crazy Halloween party last night, this next record shows up at a perfect time.

Disc 449 is… Welcome to My Nightmare
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 1975

What’s up with the Cover?  Alice Cooper’s first solo album has him formally introducing himself to us on the cover.  How do you do, Mr. Cooper – I wear a top hat myself from time to time.

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve known this album almost from when it first came out and definitely well into my childhood.  When CDs first came out it was one of my first purchases, and I quickly replaced it with the re-mastered version when that became available.  I also own it on vinyl.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all twenty-six of Alice Cooper’s studio albums, and this is one of his best.  I’m going to put it 4th, narrowly beating out "Killer".

Rating:  5 stars.

Many people say that Alice Cooper never matched his excellence once he struck out on his solo career.  While it is true that on balance, the early ‘with the band’ work is more consistently strong, albums like “Welcome to My Nightmare” are a nice reminder that he did some fine work on his own as well.

This album is his first solo album, but the influences of the Alice Cooper band are still very strong.  The guitar has the same grotesque sound that Michael Bruce played on earlier records, and the production is still driven by master producer Bob Ezrin.  This means the songs are rife with horn sections, classical piano and various other weird and odd sounds mixed into a sub-humanary stew.

On “Devil’s Food” there is even a lengthy speech by Vincent Price playing the role of local bug expert with great enthusiasm, slowly transitioning from bookish entomologist into fiendish spider worshipper as he ends with the triumphant declaration:  “I feel that man has ruled this world as a stumbling demented child-king long enough!

Of course this is only after Cooper introduces the album’s theme with the opening title track; a slow-builder that starts out sounding strung out and detached and grows into a full-fledged anthem.  It warns us that we are about to be treated to an Alice Cooper journey into the subconscious, and that it isn’t going to be all roses and wet dreams (although with Alice, both of those are likely to be in the mix).

Once again, Cooper’s incredible range is on display, with musical numbers like “Some Folks” that peel back the darker layers about how some people get their kicks, bringing it close to home with the refrain of ‘some folks’ that implies we’re unknowingly brushing shoulders with them every day.

For all its delightfully sick revelry the album’s centre piece is the anthem (and minor hit in its day) “Only Women Bleed.” This song would be either silly or insulting in the hands of anyone other than Cooper, who instead delivers a touching anthem about spousal abuse, both physical and emotional, in a way that is earnest and heartfelt, and a perfect interlude amidst all the more fantastical horrors featured in the songs that surround it.

The album flashes moments of humour in “Department of Youth.”  As the song fades out Alice yells out “Who’s got the power?” and a chorus of children respond “We do!” but if you listen carefully right before the fade ends, he asks “Who gave it to you?” and the children gleefully reply “Donny Osmond!” Cooper is never above sending himself up if it means entertainment for the audience.

Cold Ethyl” doubles as a song about necrophilia as well as drinking hard liquor (the ethyl in this case, possibly referencing ethyl alcohol).  Cooper had his serious problems with alcohol, and yet once again he demonstrates a full appreciation of his condition, even at this early stage of collapse.

Three of the last four songs, “Year’s Ago,” “Steven,” and “The Awakening” form a trilogy that brings the album’s nightmarish theme back.  Audiences are introduced to a recurring character, “Steven” an emotionally stunted man who dreams he is still a child.  When the character awakens, it is only to find blood on his hands, and the proof that while he was in some fugue state he has committed terrible crimes.

With its haunting piano intro (later lifted wholesale by John Carpenter for the “Halloween” theme) “Steven” is a troubling horror tale made so much more troubling with Ezrin’s amazing production decisions.  As Cooper’s Steven character sings “I must be dreaming/please stop screaming” and then as the guitar riff swells in he hears someone shouting “Steven” like they’re speaking down a tunnel, or up through water. Later we can surmise these were the cries of his victims desperately trying to wake him up.  Whatever it is, the way Cooper’s voice matches the swells of the song from confused child to triumphant rock vocal and back again just makes it that much creepier.

The final song, “Escape” seems like a bit of an add-on musically, and sounds more like a single (although never released as such).  With its placement on the album, it could be a song featuring Cooper as a mental patient (I imagine after being arrested for his crimes).  However, the lyrics to me speak to a deeper experience we’ve all had; how we put on our masks to play the roles expected of us, and that corresponding emotional desire to escape that responsibility:

“Paint on my cruel or happy face
Hide me behind it.
It takes me inside another place
Where no one can find it.

Escape – I get out when I can
I escape – anytime I can
Let’s all escape – I’m cryin’ in my beer
Escape – just get me out of here.

Of course, as the song’s bridge reminds us:

“But where am I runnin’ to, there’s no place to go
Just put on my make up and get me to the show.”

Alice’s escape is to flee back to where he is most comfortable – the stage, and in a way we all flee back to our own version of the stage.  Returning to the roles we know best when the nightmares of the unknown become too much for us to bear.  It is why I love Halloween so much; it is our chance to put on a mask and safely be a little bit more ourselves than we might otherwise dare.  For Alice Cooper, every day is Halloween, and great albums like “Welcome to My Nightmare” are the fortunate byproduct of his experience.

Best tracks:  All tracks, although the bonus tracks on the remastered CD are not worth your time.  I tend to skip those when I’m not doing a CD Odyssey and only pay them last minute lip service when I am.

No comments: