The comeback of Alice Cooper, the singer, without Alice Cooper, the group, poses the obvious question — was it him or them? The obvious answer has always been that it was Alice, whose star quality took him and his pals from being a maligned and second-rate heavy-metal act to a premier singles rock band of the Seventies. That ignores the equally obvious — that the music improved more than the stage gimmicks or the singing.
Some would argue that the responsible party was Bob Ezrin, the group's producer. But, aside from the Cooper albums and the records he made with Mitch Ryder and Detroit (whence half the sessionmen here), Ezrin has been a disappointment. Lou Reed's Berlin garnered much acclaim but Ezrin's production was thin. And this album is a TV soundtrack that sounds like one. The horn parts are so corny you might imagine that you're listening to the heavy-metal Ann-Margret.
Aside from Warner Bros.' Greatest Hits package released last fall, this is Alice's first album in 18 months. During the layoff Alice tried to develop an identity separate from the group's — on Hollywood Squares, the Smothers Brothers show and elsewhere. If it works, he and Svengali Shep Gordon will look like geniuses. If it doesn't they'll look like the Monkees with low Nielsens.
The fact is that most name rock groups can easily weather being out of the public eye for a year and a half. But Cooper is, by definition, different. Neither Alice nor the group was ever content with simply being in a rock band. Their fantasy was first to become a fad and then a fad that lasted.
The real question now is whether Alice needs that rock band. Based on the evidence here, the answer is probably yes. The music is admirably performed, and it is more deliberate and complicated than the basic rock of "School's Out" and "I'm Eighteen." But without the wildness and drive of the sound the Cooper troupe had, the gimmicks on which Alice the performer must rely are flat and obvious. Guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who push this crew, are good but they never get into overdrive as Mike Bruce and whoever was filling in for Glen Buxton (often Hunter and Wagner) always did. Nor are the songs they write as captivating as Bruce's.
Welcome to My Nightmare sounds like a record put together by people who don't know each other very well and were brought together for an occasion. The basic ideas which made the hits are here but their shallowness is transparent now. Sources have begun to become too evident. The Jim Morrison vocal on the title track, for instance, is embarrassingly obvious. Similarly, the phasing and group singing effects on "Devil's Food" recall other tracks on other albums where the gimmicks were used to better advantage. The pulsing rhythm section of "Department of Youth" is only a pale echo of the same device as displayed on "Under My Wheels" or "School's Out."
Ironically, this may be the result of a sharp increase in competence. Hunter and Wagner are fine guitarists, drummer Johnny Badanjek has been an unknown genius since his earliest work with the Detroit Wheels (listen to the first ten seconds of "Devil with a Blue Dress On") and the refugees from Toronto-based Mandala who make up the rest of the session group have no glaring shortcomings. The sound here is the opposite of Berlin's — it's dense. All that's lacking is inspiration, but that is missing completely. Even the much vaunted ballad, "Only Women Bleed," which is indeed pretty, is not as involving or moving as the similar ballad, "Teenage Lament '74," on Muscle of Love.
Still, Cooper has always had a way around the charges of mundane music. He is making statements. That is what he seems to be doing on this album as well. But the statement is by now so trite, even (or especially) in his own context, that it is hardly worth making. The basic theme, murder and its consequences, is right out of "Ballad of Dwight Fry." There is nothing as insightful about violence here as that song, any more than there is anything about the vaguely occult "Devil's Food" and "The Black Widow" that's as arresting as the early "Black Ju Ju."
Cooper's sense of humor has deserted him. "Steven" parodies with piano the spacy effects of The Exorcist's "Tubular Bells" theme and that's the funniest moment. The rest is forced, from "Department of Youth," which tries to recapitulate the theme of "School's Out," to "Escape," which tries to do the same for "I'm Eighteen."
Alice has always wanted to go Hollywood, and TV Hollywood at that. Welcome to My Nightmare is simply a synthesis of every mildly wicked, tepidly controversial trick in the Cooper handbook. But in escaping from the mask of rock singer which he claimed he found so confining, Cooper has found just another false face (as he says so bluntly in "Escape": "Paint on my cruel or happy face/Hide me behind it"*).
It was probably not only necessary but inevitable that Cooper or someone like him would come along to remind us, at a time when rock was in danger of being taken too seriously, that it's only rock & roll and that rock & roll is only part of showbiz. But in dispensing with rock, Cooper has left us with only showbiz. I don't know if only showbiz is as marketable as only rock & roll. Perhaps it is. But it's not half as much fun.