Review Summary: An attempt at an evolution of Flush The Fashion's post-punk sound falls short when the songs just aren't as immediate, most of them drawn out and hollow despite Special Forces still being very short.
In between Alice Cooper's classic 70s period, dishing out several blockbuster albums and remaining generally solid with or without his band behind him, and his work from the mid-80s onwards, where he re-embraced his shock rock persona and never really looked back, there was a much rougher period for the man where, even after the rehab-focused odes to progression of character in From The Inside, the man fell hard into the popular vices of the time. Though Special Forces is known as the first of Cooper's 'blackout trilogy', where the man barely remembers anything about the production or touring of these albums due to his substance abuse, comments over the years have started pointing fingers away from alcohol and closer to cocaine, largely introduced to him by Bernie Taupin, Elton John's co-composer who also had a huge hand in From The Inside.
If Flush The Fashion was any indication, this is also when Alice moved away from sprawling conceptual rock and started getting really interested in post-punk and new wave. From what little live footage of this time exists, you can see that the Alice Cooper act shared a lot in common with the new romantics of the time, especially Adam And The Ants. With that all background being laid down, you'd expect his second album of the 80s, and the first that Alice considered too chaotic even for him, to be a lot more interesting. But whatever pockets of raucous energy are contained in Special Forces are let down by the pure songwriting.
The album really does come across as someone on their first rush of an illegal substance, so very close to the comedown, which is why it has a fair amount of immediacy and punk attitude but still sounds really hollow and rushed. Opening track Who Do You Think We Are is likely the album's best moment, as the beat work on offer is just classic Talking Heads-esque erratic new wave, with drum patterns percussive yet dynamic and lots of gnarled rhythm guitar work matched up an almost staccato vocal delivery. But after the guitar solo comes a barrage of gimmicky call and response harmonies that just feel goofy, a constant hallmark of Special Forces' sound and, to me, an indication of its biggest flaw.
Alice Cooper is truly one of the most underrated lyricists and songwriters of his era, but his constant walking the line between wry sarcasm and pure silliness is what soils much of his work over the long term, and Special Forces is one of his most jovial, yet ultimately witless, efforts of songwriting. The gags of Prettiest Cop On The Block and Don't Talk Old To Me are so transparent, with the rest of the songs offering very little on their own, that listening to them just feels pointless. The improv at the end of the latter is less a sporadic demonstration of punkish spirit and more an admission that he was out of ideas before the song was over. It's also difficult to glean the meaning behind You're A Movie, where Cooper seems to brag to being on the same level of war heroes such as Alexander The Great. But leading man swagger isn't really an attitude he wore up to this point, so what this is meant to demonstrate beyond some goofy wordplay and cheekiness, I'm not sure.
Goofiness continues on Skeletons In The Closet, one of Cooper's least inspired 'horror rock' cuts, and on You Want It You Got It, which is just too simple to really project the images of excess and greed it's trying to portray. Compared to songs like Billion Dollar Babies, or even Go To Hell, there's no incisive commentary on offer. On his last album, Flush The Fashion, Alice still went for post-punk immediacy, but was far better about balancing grisly horror, clever/cheeky humour and real character vignettes. On Special Forces, he only opts to make jokes, but without the careful counter-balancing that actually provided subjects to laugh at. Granted, this doesn't really apply to You Look Good In Rags, one of two actively pointed efforts to denounce phony upper class culture and the best lyrical moment on the album by far. Vicious Rumours also works for what it is, and the way it wraps back around to actually conclude the fade-out of the first track works well for pacing, probably the one aspect that is better than its predecessor, whose pacing was inconsequential.
You might have noticed I haven't talked a lot about the music yet, which is simply because there's not a lot to latch onto. Moving on from Flush The Fashion, Alice downplays just about everything except the pure speed. The synthesizers aren't twee but instead rather muted. The harmonies don't feel like they retain any of the doo-wop influence of Lace And Whiskey, finally being washed off and used sporadically but still in a way that intentionally stands out. There aren't so many rugged jams and improv guitar solos on here, Who Do You Think We Are being the flashiest moment of the lot. That said, the drums are actually played quite creatively, with some unique overdubs on Prettiest Cop and Seven And Seven Is for a really powerful backing section.
But rarely does any of this stack up, and Special Forces sounds too hollow most of the time. Don't Talk Old To Me's stomping verses are let down by very airy choruses where the stacking harmonies just feel ill-fitting, and as mentioned, the outro just drags a song that still feels short and unfulfilling. Skeletons In The Closet sounds incredibly cheap, and the canned drums overshadow a decent bassline and some weaving keyboards, all for a fairly ineffectual song, so ineffectual I cannot tell whether the skeletons are meant to be relating to the metaphor of old family shames or not. You're A Movie's groove is solid, but doesn't really go above that.
It's a bit difficult to project the mood of this album other than 'boring', but I simply don't find most of the tracks meaty, engaging, interesting or even weird enough to be entertaining. At 34 minutes, it's not a long listen at all, but I can easily name moments or even entire songs where, if excised, they would subtract nothing from the experience. Prettiest Cop On The Block's giant middle eight where nothing happens, the closing minute of Don't Talk Old To Me, the entirety of Skeletons In The Closet, the second half of You Want It You Got It, even the false outro of Vicious Rumours doesn't feel quite powerful enough to justify itself every time I hear it. But topping all of these moments is the bizarre inclusion of a (not really) live version of Generation Landslide, a song originally found on Billion Dollar Babies. If there is any indication of Cooper's creative exhaustion, it is here.
And that's why this album feels, to me, like being on the edge of a crash from a cocaine high. It captures a few key moments of erratic power, the kind that defined the post-punk musical movement, but once you feel the burn, you really start feeling the burn, and you can feel the comedown is so close that it's practically there already, sapping away the energy of the high and leaving you a broken mess (disclaimer: I have never done cocaine). It's difficult to see the true disappointment of Special Forces until you go back and listen to Flush The Fashion again, which certainly has its disposable moments but feels a lot more rugged and raucous without sounding so draining, and just being more diverse and full-sounding in general.
You Look Good In Rags and Vicious Rumours are the only songs that really capture the same energy of that album, and Who Do You Think We Are is the only song wholly with merit and energy specific only to this album's direction. Every other song on here, either partially or in full, does not feel fully developed or sonically meaty, and either way, the album is missing a huge X-factor to make it more than a curio in the diverse catalogue of the patron saint of shock rock. It's difficult to call it his worst album, as I can still see the creative spirit behind it, but it shines very dimly here.