I always find it utterly fascinating when established artists who have cemented a characteristic sound fans come to know and love take a detour and explore new tones and styles. Neil Young's infamous Geffen albums even earned him a lawsuit from his label for records "uncharacteristic of his previous recordings."
Alice Cooper went down a similar road in the 1980s, though the results were much more palatable than Young diversions such as Everybody's Rockin'. While Lace and Whiskey and From the Inside signaled a shift from Alice as madman, Flush the Fashion, Special Forces and Zipper Catches Skin all broke new ground for the Coop. DaDa then artfully transitioned Cooper back into monster mode in time for Constrictor, which signaled a return to the sinister snake-charmer most contemporary fans know and love.
While these recordings ran the gamut from new wave to high concept to comedy, Special Forces sets itself apart almost as a return to the hard edge of Love it to Death and Killer, albeit one dressed in themes of conflict, weaponry, war and outright hostility.
"Who Do You Think We Are" kicks off the album and should sit high on anyone's list of Cooper classics. Opening the album with a dreamy helicopter landing not unlike Apocalypse Now, it breaks apart at a minute in and introduces Alice as "machinery / with a semi-automatic heart." A punk rock nihilism just snarls throughout. "Who do you think we are?" Alice asks and answers immediately with "We don't care, we don't care."
"Seven & Seven Is" follows with a manic drumbeat and tells a Tommy-like story from the perspective of an utterly detached (and deranged?) narrator. This is an Arthur Lee/Love cover but could just as well pass as another missive from Cooper's alter-ego, Steven. "Prettiest Cop on the Block" maintains the rapid-fire drumbeat and delivery though delivers a ho-hum first-person monologue from a an ego-inflated policeman.
"Don't Talk Old to Me" is a highlight with an erratic delivery of a lyric from someone determined to remain eighteen. Plunking Tom Waits-esque keys, tribal drumbeats, and some chilling background vocal harmonies set this apart from its Special Forces peers. This track would feel right at home on Billion Dollar Babies and is, interestingly, followed by a "live" recording from that very album, "Generation Landslide '81." A studio creation with fake audience noise, "Generation Landslide '81" gets a nastier reading but remains faithful to its origins, fitting in well with the Special Forces subject matter with its references to Korea, rats in battalions, shields and helmets. I'll go out on a limb and proclaim this version superior to the 1973 original.
"Skeletons in the Closet" is an unusual number. Synth-dominated, almost with a danceable beat, this sounds a lot like Leonard Cohen's "Jazz Police." It's fun, offbeat and kind of out of place on this record but maintains the ghoulish side of Alice otherwise absent from the record. "You Want It, You Got It" is another synthesizer-heavy track and is consistent with the protopunk/new wave feel of the album's predecessor, Flush the Fashion. Lyrically, it repeats the simple title refrain throughout with the exception of two brief verses and continues the mockery of excess initiated by "Generation Landslide '81."
"You Look Good in Rags" brings back the riffs with a mean guitar and continues ripping on the rich, this time in the form of overdressed, uber styled women. Alice prefers his women dirty and offers one of his finest lyrics to sum it all up: "Forget about Vogue / or them hundred dollar jeans / you'd make a two-dollar t-shirt / obscene." "You're a Movie" finds Cooper back in military mode, "the reincarnation of Patton" with "Hannibal's heart in my chest." I like Cooper's spoken lines here as "bullets repel off [his] medals" but the guitars are lost again to bad Bowie-esque backing vocals dominating the chorus and overpowering synthesizers again throughout.
"Vicious Rumours" triumphantly bookends the album with a reworking of "Who Do You Think We Are." A tale of paranoid hallucinations, it takes us out with a punk rock fury and closes with a brief reprise of the "Who do you think we are / we don't care" lyric and Cooper's helicopter lifting off for parts unknown.
Special Forces is not the best Alice Cooper album, by far. It is one of his more interesting records, though, and one that is often overlooked. In a discography that is nowhere near as one-dimensional as it may appear on the surface, this a lean, aggressive and welcome statement from an artist who refuses to lean back and coast on a formula.