If anyone could pull off a concept album about life in a sanitarium, it's Alice Cooper, the man who turned dead-baby jokes into high-school national anthems and made a whole career of exactly the kind of comic grotesqueness the new LP promises. And From the Inside isn't an obvious failure: the songs are full of good ideas, the lyrics often close to brilliant. Then why does everything sound so forced and overwrought? Because, despite the autobiographical nature of the material (Cooper hospitalized himself for alcoholism last year), the artist has apparently been trapped by his own concept. He's working too hard and not having a good time at all.
Part of the problem is that neither Cooper nor colyricist Bernie Taupin seems to have figured out what kind of attitude to take toward the subject — and attitude is crucial to a record like this. For instance, you might argue with David Bowie's point of view on Diamond Dogs — you ought to, in fact — but at least it's a point of view. Cooper and Taupin, however, can't decide whether to treat their loony bin straight or turn it into pop Grand Guignol (which is what you'd expect this singer to do, and which would have been infinitely preferable), and their uncertainty blurs the impact of every cut. "I just can't get these damn wrists to bleed" is a great line — sending up every phony suicide attempt you've ever known — yet Cooper sings it as a tragic howl from the depths and thereby misses his own point.
"Millie and Billie," too, could have been a marvelous parody — a duet between two lovers who've murdered the woman's husband, leaving him "All sliced up and sealed tight in Baggies" — but it's inexplicably treated as a tearjerker, with melodramatic strings pulsing in the background while Cooper offers a vocal almost as cloying as that of his female partner (Marcy Levy, in a role that would have been perfect for Lesley Gore). This from the guy who once sang, "Well, we got no class/And we got no principles.... We can't even think of a word that rhymes"? As far as Deep Thoughts go, the best Cooper and Taupin can come up with is "Inmates (We're All Crazy)," an idea that's been stale since R.D. Laing, pure kitsch long before One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and probably meretricious to begin with.
Producer David Foster has put together a crack session band that includes longtime Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner (who also cowrote most of the songs), guest guitarists Davey Johnstone and Rick Nielsen, percussionist Jim Keltner, et al. But their cool competence — which also affected Welcome to My Nightmare and Goes to Hell — is all wrong for this artist. As Linda Ronstadt's version of "Back in the U.S.A." recently demonstrated, few things are more unconvincing than slick musicians trying to sound raw — and rawness is the very essence, the soul, of Alice Cooper's sound, Here, almost every track settles into a leaden groove that's then piled high with unnecessary layers of overdubs, strings and backup vocals. The rock tunes are too calculated to be believably frenzied, while the ballads are merely syrupy. Cooper's singing never really gets going either — he's too earnest to be properly demonic.
From the Inside does have its moments — "Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills," the finest song, is a raunchy and obnoxious cut that's almost up to Cooper's old lounge-lizard standards — but somehow it all breathes too hard, labors too heavily and falls short. When he first started out, a large part of Cooper's charm was that he didn't give a damn about competent musicianship or good taste. At a time when most rock & roll was starting to sound middle-aged, Alice Cooper was our last great juvenile delinquent, and that's what kids loved him for. The trouble with his recent work, including the new album, isn't so much a failure of imagination as it is one of showmanship. Cooper's still pushing anarchy, but now he wants to do it politely. And who ever listens to a polite anarchist?