Released: 20 May 1980
Track List: Is That You?; Shandi; Talk to Me; Naked City; What Makes the World Go ‘Round; Tomorrow; Two Sides of the Coin; She’s So European; Easy As It Seems; Torpedo Girl; You’re All That I Want
Best song: “Is That You?” for the sleaze; “Torpedo Girl” for the laughs
Worst song: So many to choose from. Let’s go with “Naked City” or “Talk to Me”.
Vini Poncia, having produced Dynasty, is going to produce the new album as well, and he’s going to have no less than eight songwriting credits as well. Peter is still officially a member of the band, and he’s on the cover but he will not play one beat on the album; Anton Fig is back as the band’s (uncredited) drummer. We’ll see this happen to Ace on Creatures of the Night.
There may be no Kiss song with a sleazier beginning than “Is That You?”: “Cat’s droolin’ on the bar stool / shake your hips and crack your whips / Cheap seventeen and trashed out, you went too far, been a bitch you are”. Whoa! No Kiss member wrote this; it’s by Gerard McMahon, whose most famous composition is the goth song “Cry Little Sister” from The Lost Boys. The thing is, I really like the song. It’s replete with hooks. Ace and Paul’s guitars are first-rate here. It’s cocky. I enjoy listening to it. Not gonna think about it further. Moving on.
“Shandi” is the first single from the album, and … boy. This isn’t hard rock with pop overtones anymore; this is power pop, plain and simple. This is Eighties Music. Lots of tracks. The guitar is so chorused it may as well be a synthesizer at times. But this is another one of those cases where Paul is so earnest you can’t help going “Awwwww!” “Here’s another mess I got myself in / but when you touch me you ain’t helpin'”. Dammit, this is adorable! It’s sappy, but once again with Paul the sap is sugar, not saccharine; it feels genuine. I want to hate it, because it’s so over the top poppy, but I can’t. I just don’t love it, either.
Ace’s “Talk to Me” is another exercise in sincerity, as it were. “Talk to me, talk to me / all I want is a little conversation”. Ace As Awkward Dorky Guy. It works! But the music is forgettable. In the bridge, the key changes feel formulaic, and Ace’s solo … You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me somehow of the instrumental bit at the beginning of John Cougar’s “I Need a Lover”. Almost as soon as the song’s over, I forget how it goes.
“Naked City” sounds almost exactly like “Magic Touch” from Dynasty in its opening riff. Not a good thing to call back to. However, this is a Gene song, surely it’s different … no, not really. There’s a little more of a riff on the choruses, and Gene’s voice is less overdubbed than Paul’s was on “Magic Touch”, but as a whole the song is not that much stronger or more exciting than that was.
“What Makes the World Go ‘Round” has a riff which sounds like a less-sleazy version of “Is That You?” The verses are once again forgettable; the chorus, however, is another instance of Paul saying only a few words yet somehow conveying a lot of meaning: “I found out, really found out / what makes the world go ’round.” It’s simple and ever-so-slightly catchy. The song is just a little slow; a bit higher energy might have helped it be something more than it is.
“Tomorrow” would have to try hard to be blander than it is. I wish I found any of these songs offensively bad, but that’s the problem; they are neither hot nor cold, but rather lukewarm. And you know where that Biblical reference goes: lukewarm winds up being spewed out of the mouth. Which is what it sounds like much of this album was. Poncia might be a fine producer, but if this is what his songwriting does to the man who gave us “Tonight You Belong to Me” and “Wouldn’t You Like to Know Me”, I can do without.
“Two Sides of the Coin”, another Ace number, is also pretty bland. The “two sides of the coin to choose from” seem to be one night stands versus settling down, but the lyrics are a bit inept. The music, once again, is utterly forgettable.
“She’s So European”. And, Gene? What is your point? You tell us a bunch of different things about her and then the chorus is “she’s so European, she’s one of a kind”. Argh. If she’s one of a kind, how the hell is she “so European” as to merit the comment?!
Look, I don’t expect Neil Peart to write lyrics for Kiss, but did no one think this through for even five minutes? “The thing I want out of life is, I want you.” Okay! That’s straightforward! You can’t mess it up! Even “I found out what makes the world go ’round” is meaningful enough in a love song. What the hell is this about her being European? What has it to do with anything? I know for a fact you like American women, Gene. The music? Bland. Next.
“Easy As It Seems”. Okay, this starts out straightforward. “I’ve been your lover for too many years / I’m through with wasting my time”. Good start! “I hear you’re sleeping with one of my friends / tell me why, I wanna know the reason why!” Great! Thank you! This is what I want in a Kiss song and wait what the hell, that was a synthesizer solo. Okay, okay, it kinda felt natural, this far into an 80s album. Wait, here’s Ace … okay, that solo was kinda good, albeit short. This isn’t bad. This is very 80s but it’s not bad. It’s not “Is That You?”, but it’s not bad.
… Why do I hear sonar pings? A klaxxon? “Man battle stations, torpedo! Man battle stations, torpedo!” Cripes, was that Ace’s voice? Boom, a riff. A crunchy and funky riff. Ace starts singing about it being hot and needing to go for a swim. Weird. Then: “Let’s take a dive, torpedo girl! / And feel alive, torpedo girl!“
What fresh hell is this? Why am I loving it so much? “I saw this thing that looked a lot like a submarine / with a pretty girl on the bridge, could this be a dream? I dunno!” … Neither do I, Ace. Did you somehow back in 1980 arrange for someone to slip me a Mickey here in 2017? I thought this was just seltzer … it is. Okay, “Torpedo Girl” is just goofy to end all goofy, and it really, really works. Ace, if the substance abuse only caused this and not band breakups and near-fatal car accidents, I’d tell you to get back on the substances toot sweet. That was fun, dammit, and guess what! That’s the first time I’ve said anything was fun in this album review!
Whew! That was great! One more to go. “You’re All That I Want” closes Unmasked, and here’s Gene apparently taking Paul’s place as Sincere Man. Huh. When Gene starts the song “You’re the only girl I’ve been dreamin’ of / you’re the only woman I ever loved / I want you to believe it’s true”, then by the time he comes around to “You need to feel my love inside”, I think that this time, maybe he actually means emotions for once instead of … well, refer back to “Larger Than Life”. This is not bad. It’s not the goofy fun of “Torpedo Girl”, but it’s better than “Easy As It Seems” was, and it ends the album on a note which is simultaneously rockin’ and sentimental! I want to know how much of that was Gene and how much was Poncia.
Unmasked is a really, really mixed bag to start the decade. “Is That You?” would have fit well in feel on Dressed to Kill, alongside “Two Timer” and “Room Service”, but it’s emphatically 80s in music. Ace swings two strikes (“Talk to Me”, “Two Sides of the Coin”) but then hits a triple: “Torpedo Girl” is such splendid screwball comedy that it has to be heard to be believed. “You’re All That I Want” was a surprisingly sweet ending.
But boy, the incredible blandness of the rest of the album. Giving “Shandi” and “Easy As It Seems” a little credit as “not bad” after the three decent songs, we’ve still got six left that are just a waste of time. It’s 2017. Buy “Is That You?” and try “Torpedo Girl” before you buy it (but you very well might). In 1980, after listening to it, I would have told you not to bother buying it, and furthermore, that I wish Kiss would have quit while they were ahead.
They’re not quitting, though. They’re firing Peter, hiring Eric Carr, and calling Bob Ezrin again … The Elder is coming.