Time and time again I've heard the complaint that musically "COS" is derivative of Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, or "Inset grunge band of your choice here." I don't really care to address that aspect of the controversy, because to me the musical sound is whatever it is..... period. It's either pleasing to my ears or it's not, and if it is pleasing I couldn't care less who else it may sound like or when it was released in relation to current trends or fads. Just as I won't necessarily like something just because it's "popular" (and if there is a God the Spice Girls and Hanson will both soon become just another bad memory like Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli), I also won't dislike something just because it sounds current or "popular." To me, either approach is equally irrational.
However, the aspect of the controversy I do want to address is the one surrounding the lyrical content of the album. There are two recurrent criticisms I've heard in relation to the lyrics of this album. The first is that Gene and Paul, but particularly Gene, are somehow bashing or knocking religion in many of the songs on this album. The second is the same as the criticism of the music: it's route, paint-by-numbers, calculated song writing that doesn't reflect the true "KISS feel/sound." I disagree with both criticisms, and would like to discuss why it is that I do so. However, this article is not an attempt to change anyone's opinion, merely an expression of my own.
Sheep or Shepherd?
As for the criticism that "COS" is replete with "religion bashing," I simply do not believe Gene and Paul are "bashing" religion in these songs. What they are doing, however, is asking some pretty serious, mature, heavy questions about it, as well as making some very ironic observations on the topic.
In "Hate" Gene asks us, "Don't ya think it's odd/man was created in the image of God?" That's a pretty intense question. According to the Bible, man was created in the image of God, and if, as Gene believes, man has inherently "hateful" tendencies, what does this say about God? Does that mean God "hates?" He made a similar observation in the song "Unholy" where he refers to image of the "Lord of the Files," a concept discussed in the brilliant book of the same title by author William Golding which demonstrates exactly how frighteningly close to the surface that inherent hate and incivility really lies in each of us (in the case of the book, a group of shipwrecked school boys).
The lyric, "Lead a lamb to slaughter/all you ever did was follow orders," to me is quite clearly a reference to the defense used by Nazis at the infamous Nuremberg war crimes trials following World War II, where concentration camp guards tried to excuse and defend their participation in the genocidal mass slaughter of fellow human beings by claiming they were "just following orders." These men lead over 11 million people (approximately 6 million of whom were Jewish) to their deaths with no more thought than they would at leading a lamb to slaughter....... what does that say about God if we were created in his image? Are we, through actions such as this, really a reflection of God? This is the question Gene is asking, and it's a seriously intense one at that!
The theme of questioning religion is continued in songs like "Seduction of the Innocent" and "I Confess." In "Seduction," Gene explores the idea that all too often these days religion has become corrupted by those who would seek to use and exploit it for their own purposes. "The padre looks well fed" - he does indeed, yet masses of the faithful go hungry every day. There's something terribly wrong when people such as televangelists hide behind spirituality and the name of God in order to line their own pockets while true believers struggle and go hungry. Paul makes a similar observation in "It Never Goes Away" when he sings, "Heartless rich and greedy/watch the churches rape the needy/While we pray for salvation/preachers yield to temptation."
Gene referred to religion as the "opiate of the masses" in the January '98 issue of "Metal Edge" ("ME"), and he's wondering aloud in "Seduction" if all those people who have been duped and lulled into false belief "had to do it all over again/would [they] know the trickery that he's [false prophets and con men] been praying?" Gene is exploring how people tune out and become numbed to what they're being fed in the name of God and religion. An "innocent' turns to the church/God/religion only to be "seduced" (unfortunately sometimes literally) by someone hiding behind a shield of spirituality. He made similar reference to this "seduction" in "Unholy" when he sang, "From the left hand of power/comes the father of lies." To me that line is a reference to how so-called "saviors" use religion and spirituality to lie and manipulate for their own purposes. This is serious stuff!
In "Seduction" he continues: "You kiss the hand of a man for all seasons/and don't know why." One interpretation of this lyric is that it is a reference to the Catholic practice whereby parishioners kiss the rings of Bishops as a sign of their faith and loyalty to the church and to God. It is a theme Gene has explored before in the song "Thou Shalt Not" with the line, "One day a man in black said listen jack/told me I was chosen to kiss the ring on his hand." Why? Why should anyone kiss the ring of another human as a symbol of their devotion to God? Isn't their faith and loyalty something personal, between them and their God directly? Gene is not bashing religion in these songs..... he is asking why don't more people question what they are spoon fed by their religious leaders. Why the need for a "middleman?" He's not questioning God so much as he's questioning those who use God for their own gain, and these are all legitimate questions for my money.
Similarly, I find the concept behind "I Confess" to be extremely fascinating and, having initially been raised in the Roman Catholic church, it's one that I have wondered about before myself. He is, of course, exploring the idea behind the "confession of sin" to a priest which Catholics engage in. The twist? Twofold: first, Gene wonders who do priests confess to? For the purposes of the song he asks wouldn't it be "funny" if the only one they can confess to is themselves. He imagines a priest confessing to himself by looking into a mirror, hence, "When I look into the mirror." Second, why do people confess to priests anyway? It's not as if priests are not human too. It's not as if priests don't sin and make mistakes. The priest in Gene's song knows he's sinned and feels guilty so he attempts to "try and wash away the shame/ and you smile in your picture frame [mirror]" while standing there confessing to himself. What makes them special? Who's to say they have any greater communication with God than you or I? "God never spoke to me about your sin" the priest in the song "confesses."
Religion is not the only serious topic of discussion raised by the lyrics of "Carnival of Souls" either. Suicide, personal strength and solitude, survival of the fittest, feelings of helplessness and acceptance of situations beyond our control, the power of emotion (especially love)...... all these are also present.
Self-Exploration vs. Party Anthems
Are the lyrics on "COS" those of party songs and anthems? No they are not, and to be quite honest I am thankful for that. There's actually some depth to what we've been offered this time, and I relish the opportunity to see Gene and Paul demonstrate their age and maturity in their lyrics for a change! As far as the charge that this album reflects a "deliberate" attempt to capture a certain vibe lyrically, the only thing deliberate about these lyrics I see is their deliberate intent to reflect what they really were feeling, as opposed to mindlessly cranking out another album full of odes to their dicks (which are arguably beginning to sound a little ridiculous coming from men old enough to be grandfathers!).
The problem is that some fans just don't want to accept the fact that the boys who once wrote about rocking and rolling all night and partying everyday are now MEN who have real responsibilities and serious issues in their lives to deal with, and that those issues will only naturally be reflected in their music. Quite simply, Gene and Paul have grown up. Does that mean they can't also write party songs or anthems, of course not. What it does mean, however, is that we should appreciate the growth that they are demonstrating and not artificially pigeon-hole them into a particular category or sound. This isn't "Dorian Gray" and the guys are not forever young.
Paul himself said in that "ME" that the lyrics to every song on "COS" were labored over, that the lyrics were the hardest part of the album to complete. He also said that a deliberate attempt was made to "up the ante" as far as the lyrical content was concerned, that "you sing about what's going on at the time," and that "at that point [when "COS" was written] everything wasn't cherry, everything wasn't that great." Not a true reflection of KISS? Quite the contrary, the lyrics of "COS" are a DIRECT reflection of KISS at the time the album was written and recorded.
And, in retrospect, such lyrics are not merely a reflection of some isolated moment in time heretofore never explored by KISS. Looking back one can easily see that there are parallels and examples from past albums where they have explored some of the same topics and issues that appear (more prominently) on "COS." Yes, "COS" represents a natural progression for Gene and Paul in their song writing.
There have been several theories as to what the song "Childhood's End" is really talking about. When the bootleg of "COS" first appeared, there was much speculation among fans that this song was actually Gene addressing the event of Kurt Cobain's suicide. Lines such as "Sunday morning in the New York Times/I read you died last night/It said you were smiling when you blew your mind/and the note you left behind said...." seem to be the primary basis for such speculation. Cobain's frustration and dissatisfaction with the life of a "rock and roller" was also said to be reflected by the line, "Yeah, you won't have to pretend/it's near the end/you won't ever be a rock and roller." However, there is a very credible alternate interpretation to this particular lyric.
It has been mentioned in various places that pieces of this song have been written and re-written by Gene over a period of many years. If this is the case, it would seem to give credence to the interpretation that Gene is actually referring to a "real" childhood friend in the song. Gene himself recently went on record in "ME" with the explanation that the song does refer to someone he'd known for a long time, a "childhood friend" with whom he used to write music, and that it was a reflection on how they'd ended up taking such dissimilar paths. For his friend, "The dream is over" and he "..... won't ever be a rock and roller" because he gave up. Suicide, the loss of innocence, the unfulfillment of childhood dreams..... that's some pretty serious subject matter whichever interpretation (if either) you choose to believe.
"In the Mirror" explores the theme of how people get things bass ackwards in their attempts to find happiness in external trappings like fame, relationships, and possessions. Looks fade, fame is fleeting, possessions can be lost or stolen, and at the end of the day nothing else matters but what you think of yourself. Therefore, you'd better be able to look at yourself in the mirror and honestly believe you did your best to get that day right. Paul is simply pointing out how shallow people can be, and advises them to just stop and "take a look in the mirror/every line's getting clearer/see the face you can't deny." The attitudes of these type people affect not only them but those around them as well, and I think Paul is right to not "wanna live/only to die in [their] illusion" and shallowness.
"I Will Be There" is an incredibly honest and moving ballad. "I will be there/wanna be there/I will hear you when you call/give you anything and all/I will be there, anywhere/like a father to his son/I can swear to only one." The level of love and devotion Paul is expressing for his son Evan in this song is quite simply overwhelming.... and is obviously the sign of a mature man who recognizes the significance and responsibility, as well as the joy, that raising a child truly represents.
"I Walk Alone" is actually a very uplifting song once the sentiment behind the lyrics is analyzed. The song does speak of "isolation," but in a good way - it is a call for strength and fortitude in yourself that is almost "anthem-ish" in its intensity and sincerity. "I got myself to lean on/I got both my feet on the ground." It is truly empowering to be able to have confidence in and believe in yourself, and Gene (who is responsible for the lyrics to this one even though Bruce Kulick actually sings it on the album) has visited this theme repeatedly throughout his song writing career in places such as: "Paralyzed" ("Who knows/well I don't care/cause I don't fit in anywhere/but it's all right."), "The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away" ("Life's too short/so help yourself cause I don't walk on water."), "Trial By Fire" ("Can't listen to nobody else/ you just got to believe in yourself."), "It's My Life" (1982 unreleased demo) ("It's my life and I'm gonna do what I wanna/do what I please"), and "I" ("I just need a will of my own/and the balls to stand alone/cause I, believe in me!").
"In My Head" is a straight up attitude song, plain and simple. Like Gene said about the song "Deuce" once in a "Guitar World" interview, sometimes the lyrics don't really have to mean anything..... sometimes you're just more concerned with conveying an attitude or a certain feeling or vibe rather than "making sense" or telling a story. But still, and important to note at least in the lyrical context of "COS," unlike in "Deuce" (which was written over 2 decades ago by a much younger man), with "In My Head" Gene doesn't feel he has to resort to sexual bragging and innuendo in order to convey "attitude" - this one is pure "me, myself, and I" in-your-face-bad-ass-with-nothing-to-prove-to-anyone attitude.
"Jungle" examines a theme - how to survive in a harsh world - that has been explored by the band before, most notably Gene in "Betrayed" ("It's the law of the jungle, if you got the hunger, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."). "Jungle" explores this idea ("The sun is going down/a jungle comes alive/the beast is waking up/to take another life"), as well as the idea that there are extremely powerful forces pushing, pulling, driving all of us in our lives...... forces that border on being beyond our control. "Love, the mighty drug we crave/the master and the slave/will rule us to our grave" sing Paul in "Master & Slave", continuing the exploration of the themes set out in "Jungle". He does so even further by noting that though the world is a tough place in which to survive, it can be doubly so when you feel you don't even know what it is you are supposed to be doing or what people expect of you ("Every time I see a sign/tell me what's the bottom line/tell me!"). The message presented in the lyrics, though not hardly original, is still a serious one - life is a struggle and you have to be willing to fight to survive.
"Rain" and "It Never Goes Away" are the two songs on "COS" that, for me, most directly reflect the state KISS (Paul in particular) was in when the album was recorded. These songs speak quite clearly to the frustrations of 40 + year old men with obligations, responsibilities and people to numerous to count pulling at them from every direction.
"Rain" explores the idea that though problems may be "raining down" on you, you have to remember that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. And as Paul noted in that "ME" interview, "sometimes it takes a cataclysmic event, all Hell breaking loose, to wash everything out - like a flood." Even though there are problems and confusion in everyone's lives, if you just "accept" that fact, at least to the extent that you understand you can't control everything in life ("Throw your feelings up in the air/Let the pieces fall where they may"), you can allow events to rain down on you and "wash away all the garbage" in what will ultimately be a cleansing experience when all is said and done. "Rain" is actually, despite the way it may appear at first listen, an optimistic song about surviving and weathering bad times.
"It Never Goes Away" similarly addresses the reality that life is full of injustice and problems.... and that that's just a fact. Paul sings of the frustrations of people seeing these problems and being powerless to change them, while those who do have the power to change things either don't see the problems, or simply choose not to. The external forces in life that pull on us and shape us will never go away, and there's "nothing [you] can do/nothing [you] can say" to change this fact. The solution? Look inside, not outside. You can't control anything except yourself, and to try will only lead to frustration. "Power and possessions/Never quiet your obsessions/Outside, we search for something/Inside we still have nothing." True satisfaction can only come from within.
In their lives these guys have experienced more than most of us would experience in several life times. Collectively: they've been poor, become millionaires, seen that money slip away and be forced to file for bankruptcy, only to build that money back up again; they've sued and been sued; they've wrestled with fame, power and substance abuse; they've gone through line-up changes and have lost members of their musical family to disagreements and to death; they've experienced betrayal at the hands of people they trusted to advise them; experienced marriage, divorce, long time companions and the birth of children.
In short, they aren't gods. The lyrical content of "Carnival of Souls" is a direct reflection of the reality that KISS (G&P in particular in this case) are flesh and blood men in their late 40's who experience the same highs and lows, questions and insecurities, triumphs and tragedies as do we all. I say give them the freedom to act like and let their music reflect that reality without selfishly and short-sightedly branding them sell outs!