Part of Alice Cooper’s enduring appeal has been the fact that, unlike many of his Seventies FM-radio peers, he always rejected the notion that rock & roll should be Serious Art. “School’s Out” is just a distant cousin of Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” and “I’m Eighteen” is inherently funny since Cooper was 23 when it became a hit, and he hasn’t stopped singing it for the past 50 years. That’s why his great Seventies albums like Love It to Death and Killer were great in the first place. You could be in on the joke (or not) and still feel a genuine connection to the group’s gritty Detroit rock. That spirit of rock & roll abandon still exists in Cooper’s music half a century later, and his inherent showmanship is why people still fill theaters to see his guillotine act. It’s also why his records are still fun to listen to: You never know where he’s headed.
So it’s no surprise that the best songs on Cooper’s 21st solo album, Detroit Stories, are the funniest. “Our Love Will Change the World” is a jaunty cover of an ironic ditty by the Michigan power-pop group Outrageous Cherry, and in Cooper’s hands, it sounds like The Partridge Family on angel dust, complete with finger snaps, as the ever-sarcastic singer describes his dream utopia as a dystopia. “You may not like [the world] now,” he sings with a smirk, “but you’ll get used to it.” “Go Man Go” is a sendup of toxic masculinity set to a Replacements-style “I Don’t Know” guitar riff (cowritten by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer), on which Cooper sings, “[My girlfriend] knows that I’m a man” and then immediately follows that line with, “She knows that I’m a moron, but that’s OK.” And his “Wonderful World” has nothing to do with Louis Armstrong’s trees of green and red roses, too, but rather, “It would be a wonderful world if everyone was like me.”
Then there’s “I Hate You,” on which he and the other surviving members of the original Alice Cooper Band take silly jabs at each other, adding collectively that they hate the late-guitarist Glen Buxton for having the nerve to be dead for the past 24 years. Cooper even swipes at artists who take themselves too seriously on the predictably upbeat rocker, “Shut Up and Rock.” “Don’t want to hear about your politics,” he says at one turn, and at another, “Don’t want to hear about your painful past, I don’t care anyway.” His message, of course, is “Shut up and rock.” (U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. plays drums on “Shut Up,” perhaps as an ironic act of protest.)
Even the idea that Cooper is paying homage to his hometown in a “Don’t forget the Motor City” way feels like he’s doing it with a black-mascara’d wink. He covers the Velvet Underground’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and changes the radio station in the lyrics from one in New York to Detroit and plays up, in true Cooper fashion, the macabre fantasy lyric about dancing “despite all the amputations.” He shouts out a litany of Detroit rock royalty — Iggy, Nugent, Suzi Quatro — on “Detroit City 2021” and throws in Eminem and Insane Clown Posse for kicks. And he fairly reverently covers the MC5’s “Sister Anne” and Bob Seger’s “East Side Story” just to drive it all home.
Not all of the humor works — “$1,000 High Heel Shoes,” about losing your savings a stripper, and “Drunk and in Love,” about homeless romantics, feel a little tone deaf. And amid all the jokes, the message of Cooper’s one totally serious song, “Hanging On by a Thread (Don’t Give Up),” about suicide prevention, feels hidden late in the record.
But largely, Cooper and longtime producer Bob Ezrin know what they can get away with on an Alice Cooper record, and when they hit their stride, it’s a lot of fun. Figuring out how to do that seems like an artform unto itself.