MUSCLE OF LOVE (1973)
1) Big Apple Dreamin'; 2) Never Been Sold Before; 3) Hard Hearted Alice; 4) Crazy Little Child; 5) Working Up A Sweat; 6) Muscle Of Love; 7) Man With The Golden Gun; 8) Teenage Lament '74; 9) Woman Machine.
The original Alice Cooper Band's last album is a strange, twisted creation, hard to categorize, explain, or understand. Conventional knowledge states that the main reason of the split between Furnier and his trusty bandmates was artistic: "Alice" was pushing the band further and further into theater / vaudeville territory, beyond the already broad-beyond-belief borders of the Billion Dollar Babies show, while Buxton, Bruce, Dunaway, and Smith, on the contrary, were tired of the theatrics and wanted to retreat to the more music-oriented sound and show of the Love It To Death era. But before they parted company, they made Muscle Of Love — an album that is, most definitely, neither here nor there.
On one hand, there is very little overt theatricality in this record: in fact, it is much easier to see a direct transition from Babies, with its shocking excesses, to Cooper's first solo album, with its shocking excesses. Muscle Of Love has no shocking excesses, unless one considers the presence of Liza Minnelli as back vocalist a shocking excess in itself. But on the other hand, it is just as hard to call Muscle a "rock" record: it has its share of rock riffs, for certain, yet try to compare the album's heaviest, crunchiest number — the title track — with 'Long Way To Go' or 'You Drive Me Nervous' and then tell me which of them rocks the harder.
The inescapable impression is that Muscle Of Love represents a compromise — further confirmed by the removal of Furnier's pal, Bob Ezrin, as producer — that has satisfied no one and, in fact, made things worse than they were. So, Furnier removes the snake theme and the necrophilia theme and the giant toothbrushes and chopped dolls, but the band still goes for vaudeville-like and glam-style arrangements (and, moreover, notice that Alice is listed as co-writer on every track, first time ever). No ballsy rock and no breathtaking show? Not easy to understand why the album was a relative flop compared to its predecessor.
Even the lead-off single, 'Teenage Lament '74', roughly broke the string of radio-ready classic hits: imagine the eternal teenager, who was once given the anthem of his life with 'I'm Eighteen' and then shown the right way to treat his bitch ('Under My Wheels'), his teachers ('School's Out') and society as a whole ('No More Mr. Nice Guy'), now getting a vicious lashing himself: 'What a drag it is, these gold lame jeans, is this the coolest way to get through your teens? Well, I cut my hair weird, I read that it was in — I looked like a rooster that was drowned and raised again.' And the worst blow —
But history seems to have been kind to Muscle Of Love. Shrugged off upon release as a clear sign of the band running out of steam, it has since seen a slow, but steady return of esteem. It is a sleeper and a grower: for the first time in Alice Cooper history, here is a record that tries to reach its core audience not through delightful cheap thrills, but by gradually sinking in. I would go as far, perhaps, as to name it the most intelligently designed record by the original band: nowhere near a masterpiece, but an album that makes plenty of smart musical and lyrical points all the same. The thinking man's Alice Cooper!
The pompous opener 'Big Apple Dreamin', the complex ballad 'Hard Hearted Alice' and the Vegasy flash of 'Teenage Lament '74' form three pieces of a scattered puzzle where the band kind of takes a step back and takes a sideways look at itself: ambitions, expectations, illusions, disappointments. Neither of the three cuts through the senses, but all are at least interesting to follow, and the riffs on 'Big Apple' are actually terrific, although poorly produced. Lyrically, they go way beyond their previous style, and no sane human being, upon intently listening to this material, could accuse the Cooper band of a lack of substance.
In between, we do get much lighter material — cock-rock swagger on 'Working Up A Sweat' and the title track, music hall melodrama on 'Crazy Little Child', B-movie soundtrack on 'The Man With The Golden Gun' (Alice claims that the song was written specially for the James Bond movie, but the producers chickened out at the last minute), and weird, robotic, sci-fi rock on 'Woman Machine'. But nothing is wrong with these songs, either: they simply give us a show of smaller proportions than usual, and, if anything, Cooper's sneer and sarcasm only becomes stronger when he pushes the "external effects" and the titillating elements further in the background. For all I know, he would not again return to this level of irony until his early Eighties' "New Wavy" period.
Time has taught me to enjoy the Coop both when he is being gross and when he is being smart, so much so that I cannot imagine people honestly hating Alice in either of these states. Therefore, if the idea of an ugly guy confessing to having had sexual relations with the deceased as his own head gets mock-chopped off onstage does not appeal to you, try Muscle Of Love. Hear the ugly guy confess 'Hard hearted Alice is what we wanna be / Hard hearted Alice is what you wanna see' and, perhaps, gain extra insight inside the ugly guy. Thumbs up — brain-wise, mostly, but liking an Alice Cooper album for its intellectual value is no mean feat by itself.