2018 Music Essays

Music for a Brutal, Contemporary Planet: A Selective Alice Cooper Retrospective

It is difficult to pinpoint any individual album in Alice Cooper’s massive, eclectic discography as “summative” or “trademark.” Certainly, his original band enjoyed an inspired and singular run from 1971 (Love It to Death) to 1973 (Billion Dollar Babies), and his first official solo album Welcome to My Nightmare announced a fully realized vision of conceptual horror rock, complete with a guest appearance by Vincent Price and accompanied by a lavish, theatrical tour production. However, Cooper the solo artist is perhaps best characterized by his entire oeuvre in all its shifting, diverse and ambivalent forms — this singer-songwriter is the progenitor of shock rock as vaudevillian grand guignol; he is a meta-reflective and identity-shifting social satirist, and he is an artist of far-reaching, sophisticated conceptual range who proudly inhabits (and often embodies) that which some might call “low art.”

Consider these lines from Flush the Fashion’s “Pain” (1980): I’m the holes in your armwhen you’re feeling the shakes / And I’m the lump on your head when you step on the rake. Something about Cooper’s slippery, decade-spanning identity comes through in this brief excerpt: there’s the simple, efficient rhyme scheme, sure, but also the seamless and surprising shift between the dour (what seems to be an explicit depiction of heroin withdrawal) and broad slapstick.

For the purposes of this piece, I have turned my attention to three of Cooper’s most interesting (and maybe most underrated) records.

From the Inside (1978)

Cooper’s earlier albums occasionally address the artist’s alcoholism with darkly comic directness — 1976’s “Go to Hell” lists “drinkin’ alcohol constantly” as one of his most damning misdeeds. By comparison, From the Inside sees the artist in unusually confessional mode, even in the face of irony and theatricality. Blending dramatic flair with honest reflection (sometimes it becomes difficult to tell them apart), the record depicts Cooper’s stay in a New York sanitarium to recover from alcohol addiction. It is an unusually clean-sounding album by Cooper’s standards, but it achieves intimate impact even despite its polished, bouncy art rock sheen. There are moments of levity (especially in the Dionysian carnal fantasies of “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills” and “Nurse Rozetta”), but the album is at its best when it handles its subject matter straight. Next to DaDa’s “Pass the Gun Around” (1983), “The Quiet Room” might be Cooper’s most painful song, representing an isolated addict’s self-destructive thoughts: They’ve got this place where they’ve been keeping me/ Where I can’t hurt myself, I can’t get my wrists to bleed / Just don’t know why suicide appeals to me. Cooper’s solo records almost always contain a slow ballad, and From the Inside’s “How You Gonna See Me Now” showcases the singer at his sincerest and most tender. The song relates a recovered alcoholic’s anxiety about re-entering the outside world, and the ways in which his marriage will be changed by his addiction and recovery. In true Cooper fashion, the record closes out with sardonic bombast, a chorus repeatedly singing, We’re all crazy, we’re all crazy. It is an odd but fascinating album, pitting sleek, room-filling production against an artist at his most emotionally bare and honest.

Special Forces (1981)

Cooper now acknowledges that he cannot remember recording three consecutive albums from the early 1980s — Special Forces (1981), Zipper Catches Skin (1982) and DaDa (1983). Although the artist had effectively beaten his alcohol addiction by the late 70s, it wasn’t long before he was substituting that dependency with another. The 2014 documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper reveals that his blackout period can be attributed to regularly freebasing cocaine both in and out of the studio. Certainly, these three records carry a uniquely stimulant-rattled energy unlike anything else in Cooper’s discography, but they have more to offer than simply representing a capsule of this songwriter on drugs. There is also a wild, unbridled outpouring of ideas both sinister and outrageous, with Special Forces in particular seeming to lift as liberally from Cooper’s interest in surrealist art as from his own unconscious reservoir. In the midst of all its synthesizer-punctuated free association, this record finds Cooper crafting some of his most precise Yardbirds send-ups by way of punk-poisoned new wave. The lyrical approach is wide-ranging, even scattered, but the moments of narrative panache (“Prettiest Cop on the Block”) somehow land intuitively beside the frantic, Dadaism-steeped-in-coke rants (“Skeletons in My Closet,” “Don’t Talk Old to Me”). Somehow, the record manages to form a unique, cogent sensibility, comprised of songs both bursting with excess energy and finely attuned to pop structures.

Brutal Planet (2000)

Brutal Planet necessitates mention of Cooper’s protégé Marilyn Manson, and not only because “Cold Machines” explicitly riffs on Manson’s 1996 hit “The Beautiful People.” Released barely a year after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting (for which Manson’s music was frequently subjected to public scapegoating), this record finds Cooper reflecting explicitly on the event. Cooper writes “Wicked Young Man” from the perspective of a neo-Nazi teenager with “an ice blue swastika tattooed on [his] skin.” The song’s depiction of violent ignorance is as affecting as it is straightforward, with one line referring to the speaker’s urge to “purify his race” and another invoking all-too-real recent history: I’ve got a pocketful of bullets and a blueprint of the school. Brutal Planet earns its title, pitting Cooper the born-again Christian reformed addict against Cooper the adversarial, ageless rocker. The result is a combination of severe Old Testament foreboding and vitriolic social diagnosis that, 18 years later, reads even more clearly like unexaggerated cultural observation. It is not without glimpses of Cooper’s unwavering dark humor, but it is probably the closest he has ever come to a relentlessly unsmiling album. While the record sounds very much in line with the nu-industrial trends of its time (think upscale Korn meets early Rob Zombie), almost all of the songs now sound chillingly as if they were written for the Trump-ruled late capitalist nightmare that is the U.S.A. in 2018. “Blow Me a Kiss,” another track dealing explicitly with gun violence, reiterates “Wicked Young Man”’s undercurrent of racist motivation, as Alice howls, Blow me a kiss ’cause I’m black / Blow me a kiss ’cause I’m gay / Blow me a kiss ’cause I’m shakin’ / Say good night, then blow me away. When the speaker of “Pessi-Mystic” sings about “watching CNN and holding [his] breath,” the implications are almost unbearably on point. This is a major late-career work from a major figure in popular music, like a less literate Tempest (Bob Dylan, 2012) or a much less polite Heathen (David Bowie, 2002). In terms of blunt-force doomsayer rock, Brutal Planet is as good as it gets.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is available for purchase at Unnerving Magazine. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

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