ALICE COOPER: THE LAST TEMPTATION (1994)
To paraphrase the Kinks, "God save Kurt Cobain and all the different varieties". The Last Temptation, completing Alice Cooper's comeback, is not a grunge album — but it is an album saved by grunge, whose triumphant march in the early 1990s prompted Alice to finally drop the hair metal trappings and realize that the hard rockers of the late Sixties/early Seventies did it just about right — so why mess with perfection?
We are given the message almost immediately: as the short, intriguing acoustic introduction fades away, out sweeps a bunch of chords reminiscent of the Who's 'Substitute' — and, for that matter, Alice's own 'No More Mr. Nice Guy' — played on a normal, fat, crunchy electric guitar the way Pete Townshend himself might have played it around 1971. The song then explodes into a gritty power pop number, rousing, inspiring, and with a further touch of brass waiting around the corner to remind us of who wrote 'Under My Wheels'. Yes, here is a sound that
But, at the same time, be wary. Since Alice has officially given up on sounding cool and commercial (the album peaked at #68, more than twenty points below Hey Stoopid), nothing prevents him from finally sounding like an old man; and, in Alice's case, «sounding like an old man» means shifting, or at least extending, his ire from criticizing stupid old people who make the rules to attackig stupid young people who break them. The Last Temptation is a conceptual piece with a transparent Christian message — mess around with your morals and there'll be hell to pay, in this particular case, quite literally so. (Not that I disagree, mind you, and I am no believer).
There is some vague storyline followed here. The protagonist, apparently, is a grown-up Steven from Welcome To My Nightmare, although the name is never spoken on the album — we learn this from Neil Gaiman's comic book that accompanies it. The guy is bored with conforming to society's standards and seeks escape from the antagonist, a traveling showman who is really Satan in disguise, who is really Alice Cooper in disguise (or is that the other way around?). They hit it off for a bit, but then the guy comes to his senses, renounces Evil before it is too late and lives happily ever after selling door-to-door insurance and watching talk shows (or maybe not, but if you have been branded by Satan, you do not really have a lot of choices left).
Were the album recorded by the Rev. Billy Graham, I would probably not have recommended it. But the genius of Alice Cooper is such that he can even make a genre as hollow as Christian rock sound exciting. The Last Temptation's cornerstones are the songs where Satan's presence is at its strongest — two of them, 'Nothing's Free' and 'You're My Temptation', rank up there with the most vivid of Alice's past material, and credit goes not only to Alice himself, but also to the guys who matched his demonic inventions bit-by-bit, particularly guitarist Stef Burns who, on 'Temptation', gives the absolutely most exact impression of hellish flames that I have ever had the honor of hearing. Amazing, what a little wah-wah and a little reverb can do to the senses.
The most «messageous» of all the songs on here, however, is 'Nothing's Free' — quite an interesting tune to compare with 1987's 'Freedom'. In his hair metal days, the Coop titillated his younger fans by inviting them to "raise your fist and yell"; now he reminds them that, come to think of it, "nothing's free from the rules and laws of morality", and that, if you really want to be free in the absolute sense of the word ("free, free, free, I wanna be free!" go the backing vocals all around the place), the payback is simple: "When the trumpets sound and his light is all around... we'll be going way downtown". But it is not the words that matter; the message is useless without the music, as the song, a steady mid-tempo hard rocker, slowly accumulates more and more power and, finally, becomes a nightmarish Death Dance with Burns' guitar leading you through the nine circles right into the final pit. A lesson to all the Christian rockers out there: your words don't really mean jack shit — take your cue from Bach, Stevie Wonder and... Alice Cooper!
The Last Temptation has no weak ground; the Coop has covered all exits. Obviously, there should still be space for a lighter, catchier rocker to be promoted as the lead single; thus, we get 'Lost In America', a lyrically hilarious and riffaliciously engaging song loaded with Alice's usual maliciousness: a frustrated teen anthem that viciously ridicules frustrated teens ("I can't go to school 'cause I ain't got a gun, I ain't got a gun 'cause I ain't got a job, I ain't got a job 'cause I can't go to school — so I'm looking for a girl with a gun and a job and a house"... pause... "with cable"). If you think 'Nothing's Free' and 'You're My Temptation' are both a little too carnivalesque, take 'Unholy War', a dark, twisted rocker with no theater involved — just a disturbing tale of one guy's lifelong struggle with his own inner corruption, or the equally nasty 'Bad Place Alone'.
If you think no Alice Cooper album is complete without the obligatory sentimental ballad, there's 'It's Me', hardly one of his best, but recorded with pretty acoustic guitars, mandolins, and no Steve Tyler on backing vocals — which is already a huge improvement on the likes of 'Only My Heart Talking'. And, finally, even the «plot-advancing» songs such as 'Lullaby' and 'Cleansed By Fire' all have plenty of musical thought injected — the latter alone has, like, three or four different vocal melodies.
As we can see, it took