Review Summary: Technically, the sound isn't that far removed from that of Brutal Planet, but its unique flaws more overtly demonstrate the limitations of its predecessor, and the experience is diminished exponentially as a result.
Even though this is well into Cooper's career by this point, Dragontown has to be an album that best indicates the idea of the sophomore slump. While this can come as a result of artistic frustration, failing to live up to the lofty standards of the first big effort, it can also come about from creative depletion, where an artist simply didn't have enough new ideas in the tank to meaningfully expand on their previous ideas. And boy, does that hit Dragontown something fierce. I've listened to this album a fair number of times in the last decade, and even though it has most of the pieces to hit me the same way Brutal Planet did, it just leaves me so much colder. An even sludgier, even more Cooper-esque take on industrial metal shouldn't be so disappointing, but much of the magic is lost this time around.
Technically, the sound is a bit more varied this time around, at least from song to song, with the album opener Triggerman being a fast tempo blast of power that is impressive enough on its own to set a good standard for the rest of the album, and with several other high energy songs like Disgraceland and Fantasy Man, and more textured ballads in Every Woman Has A Name and It's Much Too Late, Dragontown isn't as lop-sided a listen as Brutal Planet. Slightly better production also helps; even as a massive fan, I always thought the tone of Brutal Planet was a bit too brittle, but the guitars on Dragontown has more body and the drums more punch. Solid stuff.
But praising the album in broad strokes is about all I can do for it when comparing it to its predecessor, as it's in the details where the follow-up falters. Take the title track, for example. It's the third track on the album, too late to really establish the loose concept of the album despite directly referencing tracks from Brutal Planet and establishing this as a proper sequel, with various other tracks on the album referencing the titular town as well. It's evidence that the concept is poorly enforced here, which wouldn't be a problem in itself if the general lyricism didn't falter across the board.
Gone are most of the biting parables, in are a lot more songs with either generic, broad descriptions of evil more supernatural in nature (The Sentinel, I Just Wanna Be God) or even outright joke songs. Disgraceland, as the title suggests, sees Elvis going to Hell and literally meeting the devil after dying on the crapper. Without Cooper pointing holes in his public image other than how lumpy he got in his later years, I don't know what power this song is meant to hold. Fantasy Man is even more confusing, appearing to be about a slouch of a man with no regard for his character that doesn't add up to anything but some really forced wordplay ("I hate opera, I hate Oprah"). Even on songs like Deeper and Dragontown, which do reinforce the evil attitude of the setting of the album, it's not nearly as literate as half the tracks on Brutal Planet, which had poetic yet depressing depictions of real evil.
Though there are still songs that work well enough in this regard. Sister Sara is probably the album's best track, featuring a great call and response with the same guest vocalist that appeared on Brutal Planet's title track (to my knowledge) to describe a temptress nun that ended up in damnation for her crimes despite her background. It's a coldly ironic take on an old contradictory character, one I almost read as an extension as the Sister Mary from Operation: Mindcrime. It's Much Too Late is also a solid take within the context of the album despite being contradictory in every facet. It seems to be about someone who doesn't understand how he doesn't end up in heaven, showing the other side of the coin of the characters that end up in Brutal Planet who are just pure assholes. It's a bit underdeveloped as a concept, maybe, but it does actively break away from the narrative while still properly tying into the themes of the album.
The two other songs that strike me as lyrically sufficient without being brilliant are Sex, Death and Money and Somewhere In The Jungle. The former actively jabs at critics of celebrity culture and shock entertainment who themselves get caught up in it ("I was so offended as I sat for three hours"), and the latter is a purely political take on genocide in Africa. But these songs are still too transparent about it, and the overall feel of the album is missing a lot of the dark mysticism of Brutal Planet that drove it home despite its repetition. Without that element of intrigue, Dragontown is awash in much more boring and less interesting cuts despite not sounding that dissimilar from Brutal Planet.
Musically, it's just disappointing to listen to a song like Deeper or The Sentinel and realise just how thin the line is between one of these songs being gratifying and being a bore, as without the extra edginess of the lyrics, and with even less dynamic songwriting and structure, the industrial aesthetic becomes thin in punch and power. I Just Wanna Be God and Somewhere In The Jungle also have little to offer musically, with extra digressions to break up the monotony thin on the ground. And to be honest, the cuts that differ from the metal aesthetic just feel weirdly written in their own right. If not for the distortion driven rhythm guitar, everything about Fantasy Man, from its rhyme schemes and vocal delivery to its judicious lead guitar breaks, make it seem much better suited for his next album, The Eyes Of Alice Cooper. And though Every Woman Has A Name makes for a better ballad than Take It Like A Woman, the songwriting is still incredibly basic, even utilising a slightly different take on the four chords of pop.
Now, the album still works when it has little something extra only Alice can really provide. Sex, Death and Money is the purest example of industrial metal between both albums, with an electronica-boosted drum beat and sampled call-and-response vocals giving a sleek sheen to a very grimy song. Dragontown's chorus is catchy as anything, and the build on the pre-chorus is exceptional, akin to what Meat Loaf would shoot for on Bat Out Of Hell 3. Sister Sara's harmonies also add a lot of texture to what is otherwise a bland sonic background; when the chorus kicks in and the varying vocal parts overlap to create a dense, thick wall of sound, it's almost like the base artistic outlook of the album is being fulfilled, just from a different instrument.
But these moments are rare, and while individual songs come out looking okay, I always find listening to this album back to front to be a struggle. The atmosphere is less dense, crushing and relentless and more syrupy and a slog. So much potency, literacy and power is lost by losing sight of what made Brutal Planet work beyond just how well Alice Cooper fit into the 00's metal aesthetic, so when you have only that, you're left with an album that is everything Brutal Planet's detractors say it is: repetitive, unfulfilling and Alice Cooper not exactly firing on all cylinders and giving his all.