That observation minimizes the fact that everything Kiss did was “conceptual” -- from the face paint and theatrics to the endless merchandizing and organization of fans into an “army” fighting for the right to rock and roll all night, party every day, and serve as dependable consumers of Kiss-related products.
In other words, all were “concept” albums, unified by commercially-mindful themes of sex and hedonism. But a slip in sales prompted a mid-career crisis, and Kiss momentarily sought a new “concept.”
They’d reunite with Bob Ezrin, producer of their career-lifting Destroyer (1976) whose recent turn co-producing Pink Floyd’s The Wall elevated his influence. Most attribute the “concept” to Ezrin -- Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons say Ezrin told them “This will be your Tommy” -- with the band’s subsequent, consistent disavowal of the LP further diminishing responsibility.
The story of a boy maturing into an adult hero amid an abstract, hard-to-imagine context vaguely resembles that “rock opera.” But the songs evoke not the Who or Pink Floyd, but early Rush, a band Kiss toured with at the start of its career and whose first records “The Elder” emulates.
A cinematic “Fanfare” introduces the LP as “serious” music, then “Just a Boy” presents a protagonist via Stanley’s Geddy Lee-like falsetto crooning “I’m no hero, but I wish I could be.” The much-decried “Odyssey” follows, an obvious rock “epic” that might be accepted as brilliant if understood as tongue-in-cheek à la Meat Loaf. (It’s not.)
The “story” becomes less apparent with each track. “Only You” and “Under the Rose” are good examples of metal pop, then Ace Frehley’s “Dark Light” successfully butts in with another reminder of the band’s guitar-based ethos.
“A World Without Heroes” halts momentum with Simmons doing a “Beth”-like turn in a ballad including one line from Lou Reed (one of three tracks for which Reed earns co-writing credit). “The Oath” rocks hardest of any track, “Mr. Blackwell” presents a tedious non sequitur about the fashion critic, and the instrumental “Escape from the Island” sounds like punky-prog.
The final, awkwardly-titled “I” is the most obviously head-banging “anthem,” stating a theme of self-confidence (“I believe in me”). A narrated postlude (segregated as “Finale” in early versions) then suggests the boy fully readied to become a “champion.”
None of the songs focuses on sex or partying. In fact, the speaker of “I” insists he “[doesn’t] need to get wasted” in order to have “the balls to stand alone.” Rather, the record finds Kiss earnestly aiming for “mature” artist status (or at least to elicit praise as such), an endeavor they perhaps considered “heroic.”
It’s music emanating from an “elder” perspective, then, predictably misfiring among the band’s younger audience. That an album concluding with chants about self-belief would be disowned by all involved represents a pure form of rock-related irony.