Mass appeal is what every artist wants but almost never asks for outright. There’s no better way to insure the longevity of one’s career than by capturing the widest audience possible. And no current working artist exemplifies this ideal better than Alice Cooper.
Nearly five decades after the release of Pretties for You, the little bit glam/little bit art sleaze album from 1969 that introduced his sinuous vocals, Cooper has found a way to endear himself to a diverse cross section of the pop universe. Just look at the guest list from his last album, 2011’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare: Kesha, Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Vince Gill, Rob Zombie. He’s also godhead among the trashy glam metal artists that slinked onto the Sunset Strip in the ‘80s, including Mötley Crüe, who took Cooper out as the opening act for a good chunk of their extra long farewell tour.
It’s not a bad place for him to be — all the better to cement his legacy, natch — but it’s become problematic for his creative output. His previous full-length strove a little too hard to recapture some of the glory of his ‘70s heyday with irregular results. And now with his latest LP, Paranormal, Cooper is widening his net in an effort to give a little something back to every strain of his fanbase. A well-intentioned concept, a terribly unfocused conclusion.
The foundation that Cooper and his many collaborators lay down for this new album is a strong one. Just as he’s been doing on concert stages around the world, he emphasizes his symbolic place in the world of horror rock throughout Paranormal. He sings of large-scale annihilation, medium-range death via a bloody car crash, and the strange intimacy of mental disorders. And he sounds fantastic doing it. Cooper’s voice has aged extremely well (he turns 70 next year); he can still growl out a tune with bile in his throat and get almost seductive if the songs calls for it.
As he and producer Bob Ezrin build on those strengths, the album starts to get plenty wobbly. They aren’t content to simply let Cooper’s past speak for itself. Rather they lard the album with references to his best-known songs (“I was a Billion Dollar Baby in a diamond dress,” he sings on the otherwise sweet “Fallen in Love”. “She’s like a dirty cup of poison that I can’t refuse”) and try to get his backing band to often ape the instincts of the original Alice Cooper Band.
That latter point is the primary weak spot of Paranormal. Most of the songs are anchored by Tommy Henriksen and Tommy Denander, two guitarists whose slick and showy sound is at odds with the spirit of glam and boogie from which these songs were intended. It only gets worse when they eschew that throwback sound entirely for “Paranoiac Personality” and “Rats”, tarted-up tunes that sound like all that time on the road with Crüe rubbed off on them a little too strongly.
The album is, at least, bookended by some strong material. The title track is a fine first step, setting the tone with a moody intro and some comparatively restrained playing. (Let’s give a quick shout-out to U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. who brings his sturdy and understated drumming to most of Paranormal.) And they finish off the whole thing with three fantastic numbers: the spacey and self-referential ballad “The Song of A” and two songs that reunites our hero again with Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and Neal Smith from the original Alice Cooper Band. Their tunes are as campy and arch and playful as anything on Billion Dollar Babies but with a smidge more meat on their bones.
Getting from one high point of Paranormal to the other isn’t a difficult journey; the album is done and dusted in about 40 minutes. But there’s still treacherous moments throughout that, through the first listen, don’t bode well for a successful conclusion to this adventure. Stick with it. There are delights waiting for you at the end of the line.
Essential tracks: “Genuine American Girl”, “Paranormal”, and “The Song of A”