Acertain generation of rock’n’roll royalty seem suddenly possessed of a new-found sense of urgency. After extended, mid-career fallow periods, they’ve mended fences with estranged collaborators, identified their quintessential strengths to set about recording their career-crowning magnum opus. And so, with the exemplary spectre of Johnny Cash hovering in back of their subconscious, they set about reconvening their most reliable old firm in order to record one for the ages.
Chronology being what it is, Alice Cooper has seen pensionable age looming and decided to make the kind of album that we’ve all known he’s had percolating within him since serving up his last masterpiece, the delicious pre-punk indulgence that was 1975’s Welcome To My Nightmare.
Of course he’s been no slouch since. Alice has made it his business to remain relevant, following his instincts into sometimes surprising arenas, from electro experimentalist (Flush The Fashion), to hair balladeer (Trash), to politically astute nu-metal elder statesman (Brutal Planet) and more recently, post-MC5 Detroit garage rocker (The Eyes Of Alice Cooper). But time marches on, and Welcome 2 My Nightmare finds Alice finally ready to reconvene with surviving Alice Cooper group members Michael Bruce (guitar, main pre-Nightmare song-writing partner), Dennis Dunaway (bass, experimental art-school surrealist and general instigator of all things weird) and Neal Smith (a drummer with a guitarist’s flamboyance) for three songs.
His closest collaborator on the album however is that godfather of all things epic, Bob Ezrin. A producer who, despite bringing impenetrable darkness to Lou Reed’s Berlin and an iconic gravity to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, has never astounded to quite the same dramatic degree that he did with the Coopers on Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies and, once Alice had gone solo, the original Nightmare. Ezrin has a co-write credit on all but one of the songs here, and it shows; his arrangements are as unmistakable as they’re impeccable.
So, getting specific, it’s about as much a concept album as Welcome To My Nightmare was. There is a concept in here (the character of Steven from Nightmare is back, as are familiar motifs from Only Women Bleed, The Black Widow et al), but Alice and Ezrin are just so full of ideas, that they cannot be bound by the confines of a single linear concept. Hell, one of the key Nightmare-themed tracks, Under The Bed, has even been demoted to bonus track status, But what they have for us is, on the whole, very good indeed.
Opener I Am Made For You finds Desmond Child’s trademark bankable crescendos swollen by a sumptuous Ezrin production and Jeremy Rubolino’s grand orchestrations. Caffeine is appropriately speedy; Buckcherry’s Keith Nelson locking guitars with Cooper/Ezrin stalwart Steve Hunter who exhibits exceptional chops across the entire album. Gothic piano figures from Ezrin follow on The Nightmare Returns, reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s work for Tim Burton, with dual guitar weaves that are more Hotel California than Emerald, it ramps up the conceptual claims as Alice inhabits his central Steven role once more for a cinematic slice of Elm Street imagery. As Steven boards the Nightmare Express for Runaway Train the excitement cranks up a notch for long-time supporters as Bruce, Dunaway and Smith make their first appearance, and the old magic sparks immediately. An acoustic-scrubbing, shuffling rhythm harks back to B$B’s Generation Landslide in a Who-do-Dylan cracker that benefits from a guest appearance by ex-Pure Prairie League, Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill on guitar.
As if to demonstrate that Ezrin’s presence always benefits Alice with a musical canvas upon which he can freely and boldly experiment, Last Man On Earth (fulfilling a similar role to WTMN I’s Some Folks, but with added Tom Waits raunch) bungs a little Wehrmacht cabaret Klezmer into the mix. It’s neither throwaway, nor is it padding; it’s colour, diversity, The Beatles. And to those that remember Crazy Little Child and Alma Mater, it’s also quintessential, old school Alice Cooper.
As Rob Zombie pops up for The Congregation it’s perhaps surprising that the first reference point that springs to mind is Oasis, though it’s less a feather in the Gallagher cap than an exemplar of the enduring influence of John Lennon. With a nice ballsy swing on the rhythm, meaty gang vocal ‘hey’s and an engaging spoken word insert it finds Alice bringing together every device that’s ever served him well in the past to excellent effect.
The original band return once more for the decidedly Stones-y Bite Your Face Off. Wherefore art thou concept work? You may well ask, as vast, melodic Elected-esque walls of sound, almost orchestral in tone, scream ‘stand-alone single’ in your face. Next up, the album’s Achilles heel: in olden days, when albums were 40 minutes long and we were grateful for it, Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever would have languished on a b-side that you’d only have to flip the once before deciding it need bother you no further. It’s a disco pastiche, which might well have been mildly amusing in 1977, but in 2011 is about as satirically relevant as a re-run David Frost monologue from a pre-Merseybeat That Was The Week That Was.
Ghouls Gone Wild is perky as all hell, features ex-Turtle Mark Volman and is not a million miles from Bowling For Soup or The Bloodhound Gang, with its Palisades Park organ and slapped popcore grin. Something To Remember Me By compounds that ‘one for the ages’ feeling: a classic Alice ballad set against a musical backdrop that could well have provided the backing track for a post-Real Love Threatles single. For original fans, When Hell Comes Home is worth the price of admission alone, featuring the original band with Steve Hunter as Glen Buxton, pitched somewhere between Only Women Bleed and Dead Babies. With Dennis Dunaway driving a Neal Smith beat it swaggers like the abusive bully it describes.
What Baby Wants (featuring Ke$ha. No? She’s sells staggering amounts of records outside our rock bubble, apparently) is very radio, a tailor-made modern rock hit with auto-tune to the fore. Obviously, it’s a vocal sound that largely grates on trad-rock ears, but it certainly sells, and while we purists might not like it, it’s to Alice’s credit that he still craves relevancy in the pop market. Gotta Get Out Of Here suddenly remembers there’s supposed to be a concept and sprinkles a little harmless, Hollywood horror gloss on a modern country confection that once again features Vince Gill. It’s not as macabre as one might have got from the Alice of old, but one suspects that it’s a different horse contrived for a very different course, and that The Coop simply will not rest until he’s cornered every single market extant.
The album concludes with The Underture, a heavily orchestrated combination of themes from both Nightmares, and strongly reminiscent of School’s Out’s Grande Finale, which, while marvellously realised, doesn’t really seem to fit somehow. Welcome 2 like Welcome isn’t a concept work, it has elements in the mix of a concept work in progress, but has the pace and broad palette of a Billion Dollar Babies, and is the stronger album for it.
In fact, it’s easily the strongest album that Alice and (discounting The Wall) Ezrin, has made since the original Nightmare. One for the ages indeed.