Review Summary: Easily the most challenging album of Alice's "solo" era, DaDa features some serious art rock vibes just below the surface, and plenty to unpack over the long haul, even if the emphasis is on 'long'.
The unofficial end to the semi-official "blackout" trilogy, the legacy of Alice Cooper has taken DaDa some weird places. Many were content to write it off at the time as the incoherent drivel of a man who had, most depressingly and realistically, fallen into a place of uncertain welfare. While it's been mentioned by Bernie Taupin that Cooper's drink problem may have been more of a cocaine problem, if there's any period where alcohol abuse is the more believable scenario, it is here. This is the album that Alice truly doesn't remember, and if there is an overall meaning to its mysterious narrative, he admits it was lost long ago and that DaDa just scares him today. Despite that, the album eventually achieved a mild cult status, and fans have gone so far as to interview Cooper himself, and producer Bob Ezrin and guitarist Dick Wagner, about the album's production and meaning. Years later. It has some serious longevity, in a way that even his next three 'hair metal' albums don't.
The album opener is certainly the most dissonant to any other opening track of his career, and a good index for why this album was so divisive back then and beloved now. It's basically an instrumental, with a warbling guitar lead steeped in verb and incredibly subdued playing over a robotic drum beat with echo effects that could almost be considered a prototype to the industrial sound. At about the halfway mark, you start hearing a conversation between Alice and a psychiatrist, asking him to recount his family situation, with a response denoting confusion as to how many kids he has. It's a seriously paranoid experience, almost disorienting even over a low-key instrumental.
But it soon picks up with Enough's Enough, which does feature a similar lyrical premise with familial disputes and gaslighting, but stylistically is much more vibrant, with a standard rock progression playing through a glossy new wave set-up. The stabbing synths and hard, driving guitars give a good sense of weight to the stacked delivery of the vocals, whose melodic jumps in the chorus are bouncy but punchy. It's a meaty way of delivering what could have otherwise been a meat and potatoes rock song, and it's an ethos that carries over to much of the album. Sonically, it's difficult to pin down even if it's definitely an early 80s album, but it's about as far removed from the New Romantic post-punk sound of the last two albums.
For example, the next track, Former Lee Warmer, a retitled jab at the record company Cooper was about to leave, is completely different in tone, being one of Cooper's most lavish and vibrant songs of this era, and certainly his most ambiguous and gripping "horror" song. Other tracks on here share more of a throughline, with No Man's Land and Scarlet And Sheba definitely being born of the early 80s, with their more open soundscapes, canned drums but no less organic guitar work. But still, DaDa is definitely an album all its own in Cooper's discography; the only song I could have seen escaping it and landing on another project is I Love America, which features some comedic spoken word that mimics the Eagleland mentality, with gritty guitar work to match.
A lot of songs were given the label of art rock in retrospect, which may be ironic given the album's title, but it's very easy to see that with the winding, warbly synths and slightly off-kilter melodies painted a demented but still functional picture, much like DaDa's album art, placing the rock star's face over one of Dali's paintings. If you take out the afrobeat influences, it's easy to imagine a song like Fresh Blood showing up on a Peter Gabriel or Talking Heads record or, if you're less charitable, on Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse Of Reason which would arrive four years later. Whether that speaks to Cooper being ahead of the curve or Pink Floyd being behind it at that point, I'm not sure.
In saying that, this last listen taught me the album isn't as dense as, like, a Velvet Underground or Explosions In The Sky record. Its aspirations of being more daring than any album before it are seen through and with aplomb, but that doesn't mean the album still doesn't have its share of crowd-pleasing or accessible moments. No Man's Land toys with time signature offsets in both its choruses and verses, but those choruses are still super catchy as they're ironically laying down crises of identity and morality. Similarly, the stabbing composition of Enough's Enough delivers the power it needs for such a heavy subject, even with its cheeky usage of cowboy imagery (which come to think of it, is also used in I Love America), but it also makes what could have been a wonky melody still sound really nice.
It's worth noting that Alice's vocal prowess on this album isn't that special save for a few moments, such as the mournful tone of Former Lee Warmer or the strangled delivery of Pass The Gun Around, but he also doesn't phone it in for cartoonish bravado as he did for his last two albums. But the real stars of the show are Ezrin and Wagner, who have judicious songwriting credits across the album and whose efforts are imminently noticeable. Ezrin's production here, while glossier than usual, loses none of the punch even as sweeping synths and sparse instrumental passages fly in and out of each other. And Wagner's guitar work is simply astounding, adding so much emotion to proceedings. His solos on DaDa definitely give more flavour to already flavourful and experimental compositions, but his landmark achievement is found in the middle of Pass The Gun Around, a wild but expressive solo that rightfully drew comparisons to David Gilmour.
Sweeping general emotion was probably the definitive picture Cooper wanted to portray. Though some songs have definitive lyrical conceits all their own, the overall theme is a bit more mired; there's a real sense of existential confusion and frustration permeating the whole thing, which naturally bled into the winding compositions. No Man's Land eventually turns the chorus' search for "a real man" inwards, and with no real resolution, hits surprisingly hard at the switch-up. Dyslexia also deals with inability to grapple with personal identity and social interaction, and there's a bit of that in the more linear story of Scarlet And Sheba. The cornier turn of I Love America probably remains the album's most lyrically deficient moment. Again, if it's the one song that could have landed on a different album, it may have been better to save the cheesy faux-Americana for a less dour album.
This all comes to a head on Pass The Gun Around, whose enchanting but deadly chorus echoes In The Court Of The Crimson King (the song) in feel, and whose repetition turns it from a chorus into a maddening mantra, especially with the key changes. It's easy to see how this song alone, smack dab at the end of the album, with its sudden ending with a synthesized gun shot sound, made the album sound haunting to a lot of people, including Cooper himself. It furthers the lack of character resolution found on No Man's Land, and promotes a feeling of uncertainty and chaos. If so many consider this to be Cooper's most personal album even as the definitive meaning of the “story” is lost to time, it's because its songs feel the most confessional, its tone most in line with the downward spiral that his well-publicised alcoholism must have wrought.
But even with all this open discussion about the album's meaning, and how sweeping and satisfying it remains even without its myriad of art rock elements, I'd still hesitate to place DaDa on the same level of the art rock greats, and not just because the authenticity of its power is hard to divine. A legitimate complaint that holds up even after years of slowly appreciating it is that the pacing is a little off. Fourty two minutes isn't that long for an album, but it's longer than his last two and definitely feels it. Some longer passages on the latter half of Fresh Blood, whose instrumentation is so sparse the bass feels more mandatory than complementary, could have been culled to make things smoother, and the drone of Dyslexia isn't really powerful enough to justify itself. Scarlet And Sheba is mostly introduction, which I feel is fine but is definitely off-putting the first time around. There's still just too much distance and too much asked of the listener without a real big boom of energy on the performers' part (outside of Wagner) to give it the clarity it needs to be imminently accessible yet artfully deep, the same way a Merriweather Post Pavilion or even a Misplaced Childhood is.
But artful, abstract experimentation with a hard rock undercurrent is definitely what they set out to accomplish on DaDa; it is very much how the Alice Cooper band started out, way back on Pretties For You. In hindsight, even the fans who don't like DaDa lament that it was the swan song of Cooper's true artistic career; after this, he would lean into the Alice Cooper character and never look back, and even though he would still make great albums after this, even a few I think are better than DaDa, there's just not another album like DaDa. Even though it doesn't feel much like a Cooper record, it would still be far less special without him, more important as Wagner and Ezrin undoubtedly are here. So if you want one final glimpse of Alice Cooper at his most understated yet genuinely rowdiest, against his record company, against his band, against himself, this is the place to go.