Review Summary: The party's over; now it's time to unwind.
There comes a time in every artist’s career when they feel the need to expand their horizons and try new things. It’s the dreaded “maturation” process, which usually results in misunderstood – and often sub-par – albums. The band’s ambitions usually backfire on them, and what ensues is an apologetic “return to roots”, i.e., a retrocess to please the fans. Usually, the “maturation album” remains as a stain on the band’s curriculum, and the band itself never recaptures the greatness of yore. We’ve all heard the stories. Native Tongue. Load. Risk. Billy Talent III
. The list is endless, and nearly every album on it follows the aforementioned template.
For Alice Cooper, 1994’s The Last Temptation
served as a “maturation album”. After the party-hearty excesses of the 80’s – represented by the lush sound of albums such a Constrictor
and Hey Stoopid
– Cooper’s first grunge-era release serves as chill-out lounge for the then-fortysomething artist. In fact, this album is diametrically removed from its predecessor, Hey Stoopid
– if Stoopid
was the zenith of the party, with its big hooks and devil-may-care atmosphere, Temptation
is the afterparty. Despite his claim that ”there’s a party going on”
, this album shows Alice settling down, unwinding, and taking it easy. Where Stoopid
had anthemic choruses and playful tempos, this goes for a much more contemplative attitude, often moving along at an exceedingly leisurely pace, with Fournier’s vocals sometimes bordering on boredom. However, don’t be misled into thinking this is a phoned-in performance from the Shock King – it’s purely a stylistic choice, and one that fits well with the album, too.
Furthermore, where the 1991 outing was riddled with illustrious guests, this one sees Alice, guitarist Stef Burns and their new partners in crime – comprised of renowned keyboardist Derek Sherinian and a couple of nobodies – left mostly to themselves. The collaborations in this album are sparse and extremely occasional – Chris Cornell pens and lends his distinctive backing vocals on two tracks, there’s some additional guitar, a few guest backing vocalists, and John Purdell – one of the many producers recruited by Fournier – sprinkles a few keyboards here and there. Other than that, it’s pretty much an all-band show. Sure, Fournier still surrounds himself with the cream of the crop in terms of hitmakers and producers –including Cornell and Andy Wallace – but musically, the bulk of the record is left to the core five musicians. This self containment works well, as Fournier and company hardly ever disappoint throughout these 50 minutes. Plus, Alice insists on always being on the thick of things – only one track is surprisingly trusted for Cornell to complete on his own – which means the tracks all pass the master’s not-so-lax quality standards.
Another particularity of The Last Temptation
in relation to its predecessors is that it’s a concept album
. Yes, the concept album, the scourge of prog-rock, often too pompous for its own good, and too overblown to be credible. Fortunately, Cooper knows how to avoid these pratfalls, and concocts a record where the music is the most important thing. The concept itself, expanded on a comic-book mini-series labeled an “integral companion” to the album - centres on a kid who finds a circus, run by Alice’s alter-ego, Steven, and a girl named Mercy. Initially, he has fun (Sideshow
), but he find himself progressively entangled in the mayhem, until it becomes impossible for him to leave. I know, it sounds a bit KISSian to me, too, but credit be given to Alice – this predates Psycho Circus
by a good few years. Plus, Neil Gaiman can kick Todd McFarlane’s rump any time, so…Plus, in the middle of all the conceptualism, Alice still finds the space to namedrop Beverly Hills 90210
(on opener Sideshow
) and criticize his own native country on Lost In America
. Lines like [i]”I ain’t got a girl because I ain’t got a car/and I ain’t got a car because I can’t get a Job/and I can’t get a job because I ain’t got a car/so I’m looking for a girl with a job and a car” would sound silly and childish in anyone else’s hands, but the snide, knowingly sardonic way mr. Fournier delivers them in instantly raises a chuckle from the listener; Alice is letting us in on the joke, and we love it.
But, whatever the concept or album, the most important part every time is the music; and, not having access to the comic-book (which has probably been off the shelves since around 1995), that’s what I focused the most on while listening to Temptation
. The songwriting is typical of a maturation/reunion album – lots of balladsy mid-tempos, with jangly guitars and country overtones, experimentation, alternative leanings, and a few mild attempts at rockin’ like it was 1985. However – again – Cooper knows how to sidestep the pratfalls of this type of album, and keeps his classy and interesting all the way.
[i]Temptation[i]’s first few tracks do have a little party left in them. Sideshow
comes in subtly ripping off the riff from Substitute
, and both it and Nothing’s Free
feature some mild rocking riffs and beats, as though it was 5 a.m. and there were still some guests left at the party who needed to be entertained. Wisely, Fournier and Co. understood that people still partying at 5 a.m. aren’t in the mood for too much heaviness, and this couple of tracks deliver just enough hard rock, peppered with horn sections and acoustic guitars to make it less offensive to sensitized ears. After the last rowdy punk at the party, Lost In America
, has been expelled, the band are left to tidy up the mess. And that’s where the ballads start to come in droves, and fortunately they’re all pretty good. Stolen Prayer
, the best song on the album, is strangely similar to Man In The Meadow
, from Duff McKagan’s solo album, whereas Lullaby
brings an Aerojovian country take to the genre. It’s Me
, on the other hand, is the protoypical eighties ballad with a huge chorus and a sprinkling of cheese. The common feature? They’re all awesome, and sooner or later assert themselves as standouts. Alice wins because he is not afraid of flirting with danger - that children’s chorus on Stolen Prayer
could so easily become an unnecessary, cheesy addition, and yet it works so marvelously well. These are the trappings of a master songwriter, and that’s what Vincent Fournier has always been.
With the rise of the ballads, it’s inevitably the rockers who suffer. Whereas early in the album Sideshow
made you swing, and Lost In America
grabbed you by the throat and demanded to be considered a standout, in the latter half the mid-tempo tracks are later limper. Tracks like Cleansed by Fire
and Unholy War
– the Cornell solo effort – are somewhat uninteresting, and there is simply no excuse for a track as dull as Bad Place Alone
, which fails in its effort to excite the listener with some bluesy licks. Still, the album works well as a whole, and the fact that some tracks are less stellar is merely a collateral of producing a concept album like this. The truth is, what initially seemed like the sonic equivalent of retiring and moving to Florida ends up being one of the most pleasant and efortless listens to come through my player since Julliet’s debut album. Congratulations Mr. Fournier, you’ve done it again.
Lost In America