Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare is the greatest Halloween album ever made. It’s the AIP Poe Picture of albums, striking the perfect balance between fear and fun with a heavy emphasis on atmosphere. It’s often referred to as a concept album, but it’s really more of a theme album, with songs based around ideas rather than a story. Certainly, there are songs that tie together both thematically and musically, but the through line is ultimately unimportant. The feeling is what counts.
Although this solo album represented Alice’s break from the Alice Cooper Group, he brought producer Bob Ezrin along with him and in turn Bob brought a group of shithot musicians fresh out of Lou Reed’s band. Sometimes if I take a moment to really listen to all the details in the arrangements, it makes me physically exhausted to think of all the work and foresight involved. That’s not to say that it’s exhausting in and of itself; Bob Ezrin knew just how to make something bombastic without having to beat you over the head with it. There’s a lot going on here, but everything is given enough room to breathe that it ends up being less a wall of sound and more a collage of sound and you can pick through it at your leisure.
It’s fitting that this album started Alice on a path that ended up on the Muppet Show, because a lot of the arrangements on this album bring to mind the sort of over the top, old time showbiz arrangement that those Muppet songs had (to be more specific, I’m most reminded of “Can You Picture That?” from The Muppet Movie). Take a listen on a pair of headphones and see how often unexpected horns show up or note the fact that the album doesn’t give a flying fuck about mono compatibility, it will pan things to wherever it goddamn pleases.
All the horns in the world would be useless if Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter weren’t killing it on guitar. While they lacked the raw edge of the Michael Bruce/Glen Buxton attack that made the Alice Cooper Group albums what they are, they make up for it in dexterity, which is exactly what this album needs (however, I don’t want to take anything away from Bruce/Buxton. As good as the Nightmare band was, a viewing of the live Welcome to My Nightmare film shows that they could never quite sell the Alice Cooper Group material). It’s like each new song brings a costume change. From hellbound funk band to ragtime to dark symphony, they look good in all of them.
The album opens simply enough with Alice with the title track/mission statement. Given the previous output of the Alice Cooper Group, one might expect the gentle but foreboding acoustic guitars to come crashing down in a cascade of dirty riffs and hellfire. Instead, the first Alice Cooper solo album asserts itself by resolving in a wah pedal and horn freakout, like some crazy ass version of the Ohio Players. There are a lot of moving parts to it but save for an explosion near the end, it never fumbles into dissonance. Instead, the freakout fades out into the big riff you expected the whole time.
“Devil’s Food” is short, but assertive, built off of a main riff that’s big enough to fill arenas, but carries a toughness that keeps it from being a stodgy 70s corporate rock deal. Also, it’s about cannibalism. I’m pretty sure that still doesn’t play well on radio.
From there, Vincent Price shows up as a crazy museum director, adding some horror credibility to the proceedings some 8 years before Thriller would use him in a similar manner. It always bothers me that Vincent screams about the power of the female Black Widow and then the song “Black Widow” refers to the “smaller and weaker male of the species”, but it’s too good of a song to nitpick. I’m a sucker for that instrumental break.
Since I don’t want to turn this into a track by track review, I’m going to spare you my ramblings about the cabaret darkness of “Some Folks” or the down and dirty necrophilia of “Cold Ethyl” so that we can talk about “Steven.”
Given the callback in “The Awakening”, it’s safe to say that Steven’s story actually starts in “Only Women Bleed”, but for our purposes, we’ll start with “Years Ago.” Over the sounds of what could be a rundown carnival or a French street band about to keel over, Alice sings in a little kid voice about being broken inside. Some distant voices of what is reported to be an ”actual” exorcism (that is to say that it’s supposedly a recording of someone who really thinks they are dealing with a demonic force) underscore Alice’s dual-personality break with reality as his “mom” calls him home. From there, the accordion fades and we’re left with a piano and a sad child.
“Steven” is one of my favorite theatrical rock songs ever, an A minor epic sold by Alice’s performance. His delivery on “but if that’s the way that God has planned you…” is chilling and the thunder of the chorus announces that hell has come and nothing will ever be well again. Then Alice/Steven wakes up only to find his wife is missing and there is blood on his hands.
Of course, the whole thing is just a nightmare as Alice spells out in “Escape.” You get to both escape the nightmare and use the nightmare to escape your life. It’s a horror you can bottle and take out when you need to be reminded of how much fun the monsters can be. You might even forget about the real monsters for a while.