Alice Cooper can, admittedly, be something of an acquired taste. The original shock rocker, his works treat the macabre and the grotesque as sources of inspiration and often humor, sometimes to the outrage of self-designated moral guardians (whose heads would likely explode if they remembered he’s a Christian himself). But he’s one of the most skilled and most prolific rock musicians around, and his work has inspired everyone from KISS to Guns n’ Roses to They Might Be Giants. Even Frank Sinatra once covered Alice’s soft love song “You and Me” in concert on one occasion.
I’ve been a big fan of Alice Cooper’s since I was introduced to his music (and his sense of humor and musical insights) through his syndicated radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper. While I don’t own every album (with 26 studio albums to the name, it can take a while to get them all), I do own several of them, including the more pivotal ones. So when I heard he was releasing a sequel album to 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare, I had to get it.
The original Welcome to My Nightmare is one of Alice Cooper’s most important and most acclaimed albums. It was his first solo album, and as such, the first album in which “Alice Cooper” referred to the man, and not the band. (His band would go on as “Billion Dollar Babies”, releasing, as far as I can tell, only one album, 1977’s Battle Axe.) A big enthusiast of concept albums, Alice Cooper had done some themed albums before (notably School’s Out and Killer), but Welcome to My Nightmare was the first time he tried to tell an actual story through the songs. The album tells the tale of Steven, a man who undergoes a nightmare in which he is alternately tempted and tormented by the devil and various strange occurrences. When he awakens, Steven is horrified to find that while sleepwalking he has murdered his own wife, and escapes into madness. Alice would go on to reference the character of Steven in later albums, particularly Along Came a Spider, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell (referred to in liner notes as a tale told to Steven as a child), and would invert the tale in The Last Temptation, which can be taken as a “What if?” where the (different) Steven of the tale is both younger and more capable of fending off the devil.
Welcome 2 My Nightmare continues the tale, and as one might expect, it’s filled with callbacks to the original album, as well as occasionally using elements from other significant Alice Cooper albums. Discussion of the album from Alice Cooper often refers to the character as Alice, but within the metatext of Cooper’s larger body of work, Steven can be viewed as a fragment of the fictional Alice’s personality (for the sake of convenience and consistency, I’ll be saying “Steven”, to avoid having to distinguish between Alice-the-musican and Alice-the-character). The album cover is a take off the original (which was one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers); the inside cover is a more direct reference, looking like a greatly aged and somewhat decayed version of the original. Personally, I like that one better, as it both brings the other to mind more readily, and seems somewhat classier.
The album attempts to incorporate both modern musical elements and song styles that were popular at the time of the original album’s release. For the most part, it succeeds, providing track after listenable track. It also features some guest vocalists and musicians, including members of the original Alice Cooper band.
“I Am Made of You”: The opening track is a haunting melody of a man who has been utterly shattered, and has put himself back together through his love for another. We don’t know if it’s a reference to Steven’s wife Ethel, or if there’s another woman in play now, and in truth the only way we know it involves Steven is the opening piano melody, which is taken from the original album’s track “Steven”. I was surprised to hear Alice Cooper using auto-tune on this track; I am generally of the opinion that auto-tune is only used by those who aren’t capable of carrying a tune and it makes voices sound unnatural. However, Cooper uses it for precisely that purpose, adding an inhuman element to the lyrics where Steven laments his broken mind.
“Caffeine”: The second released single from the album, and I’m betting it draws a small amount of controversy from being misunderstood. It’s a good, peppy song, but the refrain calling for caffeine and amphetamine would doubtless get misinterpreted as being pro-drugs out of the context of the album (in reality, Alice Cooper is staunchly anti-drugs, especially after his own recovery from alcoholism). Steven, of course, is seeking speed because he is terrified to sleep, knowing that when he does, the nightmare may return.
“The Nightmare Returns”: Of course, the inevitable happens. This is a short bit of ephemera, with a delivery reminiscent of the verses of “Wind Up Toy” off the Hey Stoopid album (“Wind Up Toy” is also often suspected to refer to Steven). It serves a transition between the first few songs, of a waking Steven grasping for sanity, and the remainder of the album, with the nightmare back in full force.
“A Runaway Train”: Steven awakes on a chain gang being transported by train, bewildered by his circumstances. This song really captures the feel evoked by the title, taking a fast pace and not letting up. There’s no chorus for this song, it’s just one high speed verse.
“Last Man on Earth”: This track has a strong vaudevillian flair to it, as Steven finds himself alone after the train wrecks. “Am I a beggar, or a king?” is the constant refrain as he finds himself without any restraints or responsibilities. Alice says it was influenced by the work of Tom Waits, whose own work was influenced by vaudeville, so it’s nice to know I wasn’t just imagining that.
“The Congregation”: Where “A Runaway Train” has no chorus, “The Congregation” is more chorus than verse, with a multi-tracked effect on the singing to bring out the sense of a whole horde of “people” greeting Steven. Cooper says this was influenced by the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour”, and you can hear the influence once you’re aware of it. Rob Zombie has a guest appearance as “The Guide” (hearkening back to Vincent Price’s turn as “The Curator” in Welcome to My Nightmare, and to “The Showman” in The Last Temptation). Here Steven is welcomed into Hell, where they genuinely seem pleased to see him… at least for now.
“I’ll Bite Your Face Off”: The first single from the album, “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” sets things up as beautiful and wonderful until the woman who is the subject of the song utters the title line. Like many classic Alice tunes, it relies on combining a sense of comedy and terror and subverting expectations.
“Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever”: Part of the more surrealistic stretch of the album, “DBBF” is indeed a disco song, albeit one that opens with ominous chanting. Fun, odd, and quirky.
“Ghouls Gone Wild”: And from disco to surf rock, gleefully singing about beach going zombies. Catchy. Macabre, but catchy.
“Something to Remember Me By”: A bit of an outlier on the album, this song was apparently first written in the 70s, and not used until now because Alice Cooper couldn’t get the vocals and arrangement to his satisfaction. It’s a pretty love ballad, and only really fits on the album due to the “nightmare” logic that you can fit anything in a dream somehow.
“When Hell Comes Home”: Where the original album’s “Only Women Bleed” was about the evils of spousal abuse, “When Hell Comes Home” is about child abuse, giving some insight as to how Steven originally became broken.
“What Baby Wants”: A call to “pay the piper”, so to speak, as the Lady in Red, one of Steven’s guides through the place starts asserting her dominance. Ke$ha is the guest vocalist on the track, as well as co-writer of the lyrics; I’m mostly unfamiliar with her work, and was surprised at well she works in the tune.
“I Gotta Get Outta Here”: Finally, the nightmare is too much, and Steven determines he has to wake up. Unfortunately for him, that’s much easier said than done. The “twist” here is kind of an “untwist”, as it was revealed early and directly in “The Congregation”, but it still works as a nice surprise lyrically, and also sets up a nice comedic bit also used in Alice Cooper Goes to Hell‘s track “Give the Kid a Break”: Alice arguing with his background singers about what’s going on.
“The Underture”: The final (main) track of the album is an instrumental and a medley of parts of tunes from both “Nightmare” albums, with occasional bits thrown in from other albums as well (the opening fanfare reminds me of parts of School’s Out). It’s a nice finisher for the album, tying everything together.
Now, as with many albums released nowadays, there’s a tendency to include bonus tracks. Unfortunately and very annoyingly, the bonus tracks are different depending on where you buy. I’m not sure who is to blame for this, but I’m going to go with the record company, and producer Bob Ezrin. That may or may not be fair, but it seems like the sort of thing they’d be responsible for handling. There is an iTunes-exclusive track, “A Bad Situation”, which can only be purchased as part of the album (so no grabbing the track individually, as I’d like to do in that case). The vinyl edition includes “Flatline”, a fan pack and the Best Buy version include “Under the Bed”, and a few versions include a cover of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”. None of these tracks are available in any way except on the different versions of the albums, making it essentially impossible to be a completist.
I picked up the Best Buy version, with “Under the Bed”, which is a solid track and works well as a coda to the album, hinting at someone else’s nightmare. This version of the album also includes live tracks of Cooper’s hits “Poison”, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, and “The Black Widow” (the latter of which is a track from the original Welcome to My Nightmare.) They’re nice bonuses, but nothing essential. I wish I could obtain the other bonus tracks, but at least for now, it seems I’ll be waiting until they (hopefully) get released on a later compilation album.
Overall, Welcome 2 My Nightmare is both a worthy follow-up to its predecessor and an album that manages to stand on its own two feet. While a dedicated Alice Cooper fan will get more out of it than a new listener, I don’t think you need to be familiar with the original album to enjoy it (which is probably a good thing, as with the way today’s music marketing spells things, many buyers probably won’t realize that the “2” in Welcome 2 My Nightmare actually signifies a sequel and isn’t just a creative misspelling of “to”.) It’s a great album, and 35 years later, Alice Cooper is still on the top of his game.