Review Summary: A marked improvement on Special Forces in many areas, especially mixing and punchiness, Zipper is a fun, wry but still kinda hollow collection of burned out post-punk.
Located within the middle of Alice's so-called 'blackout trilogy', Zipper Catches Skin is perhaps the least discussed album of Alice Cooper's discography. Neither old nor weird enough to face the potential of becoming a hidden gem, nor contemporary or relevant enough to be worthy of much modern discourse. Even the start of his arena/hair metal phase is apparently worth more discussion than this album, which is somewhat understandable given the pure size of the artist's catalogue, but it still begs the question of just how unsung this album is. One could easily make a joke about the album's failure to stand out as another reason Alice doesn't remember making it, a hyuck, but a few listens does give Zipper Catches Skin an identity within the wider Alice Cooper brand, albeit not a particularly vibrant one.
Coming off the heels of the very New Romantic influenced Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin is a bit broader with its influences but still fits very well into the early new wave scene, and especially the post-punk scene. Rough, ragged guitars, fast vocal delivery, bouncy and buoyant melodies. However, one immediate upgrade is a far punchier mix. Special Forces always sounded too distant and spacey, but the guitars on Zipper are grittier, more in your face, and the drums and vocals have a decent punch to them too. It's not too roomey as the last album was, and right out of the gate makes for a more immediate listen.
Opener Zorro's Ascent, while not its best track, is a decent index for the album's sound. Atop a basic chord progression, vibrant overdriven guitar belts out a memorable lead line while Cooper uses spoken word delivery to give us a playful take on the story of Zorro with a few weird self-insert lyrics for even more absurdity. A few critics have compared this album to the Cars or the Knack, but it's definitely less polished than either of those. But it's not so unpolished as to sound amateur hour, so it lends a light element of grit to much of the album.
But in other respects, the heavy pace clashes with the melodic tone of the album rather than complements it, and a notable reason why the album occasionally crumbles under its own weight is how well Alice Cooper's general affections apply to his new style of writing and singing on here. Few songs here are deliberately silly to the point of corniness, but make no mistake, this is still the era where he is his most comic. About half of the vocals are delivered just with snarled spoken word, and most melodic singing is left to back-up singers while Cooper semi-shouts about being a future inspiration despite his screw-ups, or maybe with a macabre tale about his dead pets coming back to life.
About half the time, this just detracts from the atmosphere, because his delivery is so forcefully snarky I just imagine him doing The People's Eyebrow the entire time, and it actively takes away from the music when you have these vibrant, bouncy guitar lines and dynamic drum patterns backing up a style of vocals that better suits more static composition and production. At the same time, it definitely gives the album a little bit of flavour, and the songs where it does work successfully highlight its strong points. I Like Girls is a sardonic jab at playing different flames against each other, with an extra viewpoint by Patty Donahue of The Waitresses, which leads directly into Remarkably Insincere, a strangely compelling counter-point where Cooper plain owns up to his failings and his tendencies towards misdirection. It's the kind of subject matter best delivered by a mid-career Cooper, at the right age to be jaded and deliver songs about misshapen relationships (also found in Adaptable). Otherwise, a fourth-wall breaking horror story like Tag! You're It is the kind of song that was better delivered by a Tom Waits or Nick Cave.
When he does sing, it doesn't really showcase any skillful evolution on his part, but it does allow the songs to be even punchier. The best song on offer is probably Adaptable (Anything For You), whose drums and guitar bob and weave to give the track an erratic but nonetheless catchy flow. The chorus melodies are almost straight punk, some of the guitar work sounding similar to Holidays In The Sun by the Sex Pistols, which is what makes this brand of post-punk word; the catchiness of the material on here doesn't compromise how gritty is, and the loose-sounding performances don't take away any of the colour of the sound. I Better Be Good is also a decent demonstration of such, with a stop-start flow and up-and-down guitars having the tiniest surf rock influence, further bolstered by crooning background vocals in the chorus. It's ridiculous in the best way, as is the suitably titled I'm Alive (That Was The Day My Dead Pet Returned To Save My Life).
However, a good portion of the album is also just a drag. No Balony Homosapiens is apparently inspired by Spielberg's E.T., but it sure it doesn't muster any of the magic or charm of the movie, instead being a slog of a listen at five minutes, its extra vocals towards the end a ham-fisted attempt to lend the song any power. I Am The Future is also just a weirdly unfulfilling track, but not for lack of trying, featuring a cracking guitar solo, a recurring moment that saves much of this album from being uneventful. When the album is overwrought and trying too hard, it feels like a drag even when the instrumentation is belting out fast and colourful post-punk palettes of sound.
And all that puts Zipper Catches Skin in a weird place in Alice's discography. The good songs on offer are way better than the highlights of Special Forces, and are slightly more numerous, but much of the rest of it is just as uneventful even as the band are playing their asses off. The judicious playful spoken word gives the album a more unique atmosphere than its contemporaries, but simply drags the album down half of the time. But the spoken word is also the only true delineator from his previous two albums beside some of the lyrics and mixing; ultimately, it's difficult to see how this direction could have been sustainable.
Certainly, rugged overdriven post-punk would not remain in vogue past this point for very long. Even Talking Heads went full tilt in the more electronic direction of new wave as the 80s rolled on, and there's definitely a bit of TH77 in Zipper's DNA, too late after that album was relevant. A fiery but also burned out collection of absurd stories and wry musings on social interaction with unconventional vocal delivery often masking some of the tightest musicianship of its kind. At 32 minutes, it's about the same length as Special Forces but is measurably less hollow, but sadly not much more memorable. Still, it's an easy recommendation for those who want an attempt at wry storytelling alongside the manic atmosphere of early post-punk, like a demented, lackadaisical Elvis Costello. Just don't go into it expecting it to change your life; I doubt this is anyone's favourite Cooper album, because it's certainly not his.