Thursday, February 26, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 710: Alice Cooper

Another long day that started early, but I capped it with a good workout and am feeling rather pleased with myself as a result. Also, I enjoyed my latest album – it is almost like this CD Odyssey I am on is filled with albums right out of my own collection…

Disc 710 is…. The Last Temptation
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? A nightmarish collage of temptations and troubled figures, gathered around the master of the macabre himself, Alice Cooper. Alice appears to be casting a spell over some sort of mystical Bunsen burner. Or he could just be trying to get warm – he’s so cold he’s gone blue!

How I Came To Know It: Believe it or not there was a period when I stopped buying Alice Cooper albums. After 1991’s “Hey Stoopid” I was starting to feel like he didn’t have another really great record in him so I moved on. Also, I was really heavily into folk music in the early nineties, and my obsession left little room for other styles.

Then ten years later I was given 2001’s “Dragontown” for my birthday and I discovered I’d just missed a relative renaissance of Cooper’s career. I earnestly began to drill backward until I finally got to “The Last Temptation.”

How It Stacks Up:  I have 26 Alice Cooper albums, which I think is all of them. “The Last Temptation” holds up pretty strong – definitely top half, although probably not top ten. I’ll put it 11th.

Rating: 4 stars.

For five years from 1986 to 1991 a newly sober Alice Cooper decided he was going to be an eighties metal star. When I was a teenager it made me perfectly happy, but these albums have not aged all that well. “The Last Temptation” is Alice shedding notions of what he ‘should’ do to be successful and getting back to doing what he does best: mixing shock rock with broad and ambitious musical concepts.

The album is the first in a loose trilogy of records which continues with “Brutal Planet” (2000) and “Dragontown” (2001) that explain the fall of man into damnation. The theme becomes progressively broader on the later records, but on “The Last Temptation” it is focused on one man’s temptation.

“The Last Temptation” is almost a sequel to 1976’s “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” except instead of it all happening in a dream sequence, you get the impression that it is happening for real. The circus has come to town, Bradbury style, and the devil’s got an offer you can’t refuse. Cue music.

The first song is “Sideshow” which is a passable track that introduces the titular temptation. Passable except for one thing – it pretty much pulls its melody wholesale out of the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket.” I’d like to think it is an homage, given the similar themes of consumer/wish culture, but I can’t deny what I heard and the liner notes don’t have any credits noting the Clash.

With that one sour note out of the way, “The Last Temptation” steps up and delivers an amazing journey through Alice Cooper’s favourite recurring theme – getting dragged to hell. As a recovering alcoholic and born again Christian it isn’t a surprising theme for him, but for all that I don’t know anyone who does it with quite the same panache as he does.

Cooper’s signature take on empty consumer culture is on fine display in “Lost in America” which is one half indictment of the lack of opportunity and one half indictment of the people who use that as an excuse to not move forward. The song opens:

“I can’t get a girl cuz I ain’t got a car
I can’t get a car cuz I ain’t got a job
I can’t get a job cut I ain’t got a car
So I’m looking for a girl with a job and a car.”

It is this kind of logic that’ll get you signing a deal with the devil.

Later the album introduces us to other lost souls in the devil’s playground. My favourite is “Smoky Joe” who appears on the song “Bad Place Alone.” Smoky Joe is described as “thin as a coroner’s needle” shaking like a cold Chihuahua, with a runny nose and a road map on his arm. It is all so delightfully grim.

The album alternates from heavy, crunchy rock to more ballad-like structures and is reminiscent of Cooper’s early records with the Alice Cooper band. The mix shows that Alice has finally synthesized the lessons he learned from eighties metal back into his own style. He’s absorbed it, dissected it and now he can simply add it to his repertoire without letting it rule the entire sound of his record. It is a welcome evolution.

When the songs get stripped down, such as on “Stolen Prayer” and “It’s Me” you can hear Cooper’s vocals, that are still very strong at this stage of his career. He tends to sing a lot of songs in a raspy tone, but on tracks like these you get to see his range, switching from smooth and folksy up into controlled aggression with equal ease.

The album ends with “Cleansed by Fire” a fine - if over-amped - rejection of the devil song. Instead of waking up, as he does at the end of “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” here Cooper’s character (the ever-present Steven) is awake the whole time and needs simply to apply his wits sufficiently to not sell his soul. Not to worry though, he’s back in 2008 making bad decisions on “Along Came a Spider.”

I don’t typically want to know much about the albums I review, but while looking up some minor detail about “The Last Temptation” I discovered it is also a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman. It shouldn’t influence how I feel about the record, but damn it I love Neil Gaiman, and it makes me enjoy “The Last Temptation” even more.

Best tracks: Lost in America, Stolen Prayer, Unholy War, Lullaby, It’s Me

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