Yes, the title is an exaggeration. Perhaps it should be “albums no one admits to listening to or liking”! I’m sure there are plenty of others who like some of these albums. In fact, a few of these albums sold quite well. But reviews tended to be tepid, mixed, or worse. And in certain circles (yes, I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine), most of these albums were either panned or scorned. Or they were simply ignored. (Deep question: “If Chris Cornell makes an album with Timbaland and no one listens to it, does it really exist?”)
The bottom line, I suppose, is that these albums tend to not fit comfortably into the larger body of an artist’s or band’s work. It might be that the album simply isn’t as good as other albums; or, it tended to be dismissed or downplayed because of apparent shortcomings or actual flaws. But, for me, these are often the most interesting albums, even if they are not the best albums. Just as really great people become more human and thus more fascinating when their flaws or failures are revealed or recognized, great artists reveal something in work that is “left field” or somehow not considered to be 10/10 material. (And, yes, I do consider ABBA to be a great band. Really. I’ll explain why soon enough.)
I’ll be posting my Top 10 “albums no one else listens to or likes” over the next few weeks. The first album on my list is:
10. In the Spirit of Things (1988) by Kansas: This the best Kansas album of the
Eighties and is, in my estimation, a shining jewel in the sometimes cracked and conflicted crown of now-retired singer, keyboardist, and lyricist Steve Walsh. After five very good to classic albums in the 1970s (see my review of the documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere”), Kansas started to unravel. Monolith (1979) was a step down from previous efforts, and Walsh left after Audio-Visions (1980) and was replaced by John Elefante, and while the results certainly were not horrible, they were mixed. Walsh pursued a career as a solo artist and then as head of the AOR-oriented Streets, to mixed ends, to put it kindly.
A Walsh-led, Kerry Livgren-less Kansas reformed in the mid-Eighties, featuring one of my all-time favorite musicians/guitarists, the incomparable Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Flying Colors, Deep Purple, Steve Morse Band). The first go was Power (1986) which had some interesting moments and was played with professional precision. For example, the title track has a rather epic ’80s drum sound and a stellar call-and-response chorus while the power ballad “Can’t Cry Anymore” is both extremely emotional—Walsh certainly shines—and rather clinical all at once; it seems evident the group was looking for a hit. And, in fact, the straight ahead pop song “All I Wanted” charted in the Top 20, the last Kansas song to make any noise on the charts.
Oddly enough, Power was co-produced by the English arranger and producer Andrew Powell, who had worked with Alan Parsons Project and helped produced Kate Bush’s first two albums. I say “oddly enough” because the production on Power, while clean and professional, was quite sterile sounding, with little sense of immediacy or liveliness. On the whole, the album came across as if the band members were not entirely certain of what the reformed Kansas should be other than a band trying to regain some traction in an industry that had changed dramatically in less than a decade’s time.
In retrospect, In The Spirit of Things appears to be the work of a group trying to establish a new and forward-thinking identity. With an album under their collective belt and with highly regarded Canadian producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, the group created a concept album of sorts based loosely on the 1951 flooding of the small town of Neosho, Kansas. However, having listened to the album hundreds of times, I’d say the two biggest themes are lost love and the seeking of faith amid the material and emotional ruins of one’s life. “Ghosts”, the opening song, is a piano-driven dirge that reflects on the remains of “an old ghost town”, noting that there’s a ruined belltower that once upon a time “must have softened every soul that came to pray”. It’s hardly an accident that the final song, “Bells of Saint James”—one of my all-time favorite Kansas cuts—is about the recollection of love lost due to the Korean War—
I don’t remember when those words changed
Like Kansas summer turns to fall
But she quit talking ’bout the future
Never mentioned dreams at all
—and the sounding of church bells:
Are the bells of St. James still ringing
The bells of St. James still ringing down
Lifting the eyes of those homeward bound
The reference to those “homeward bound” is, I think, meant to refer to earthly and heavenly homes, as the album is shot through with the desire for spiritual rest and insight. While the first half of the album is very good, the songs still have a bit of that “gotta have a single” feel. And, in fact, the song “Stand Beside Me”, co-written by professional songwriters Bruce Gaitsch and Marc Jordan, got the music video treatment, with the standard ’80s shots of couples getting friendly on dark city streets with steaming manhole covers.
The second half of the album, however, is a masterpiece, with all songs being co-written or written by either Morse or Walsh:
“I Counted on Love” (Morse, Walsh) – 3:33
“The Preacher” (Morse, Walsh) – 4:18
“Rainmaker” (Ezrin, Morse, Walsh) – 6:44
“T.O. Witcher” (Morse) – 1:39
“Bells of Saint James” (Morse, Walsh) – 5:39
There are power ballads and then there is “I Counted on Love”, which is about as gut-wrenching as they come, featuring Walsh at his most powerful and vulnerable, especially during the bridge, culminating with a spine-tingling cry of defiance: “I was cryin’, but I’m dyin’, cause I hate letting go” (2:10-2:40). “The Preacher” is a guitar-organ-meets-Walsh-and-sparks-ensue rocker, with Morse performing a solo that is so damned perfect (2:15-3:20) that I never tire of hearing it. “Rainmaker” is the prog-centerpiece, a mixture of instrumental pyrotechnics and deep lament, sung from the perspective of the man who thought he could control both the natural and supernatural and ended up destroying everything in sight as “the hand of fate got out of hand”:
But I started this dance and a storm kicked up
The sky went black from coast to coast
It was too late to stop – it was to late to pray
I had summoned down the Holy Ghost
Oh the searing wind and the clouds of dust
And hell came raining down
What came out of me and the powers that be
Was the last of that one horse town
The instrumental section that follows is worth a listen, as both Walsh on keyboards and Morse on guitar lock into an escalating journey into chaos and tragedy that crescendos and then slides into a powerful chorus, with Walsh anguishing over the top: “Save us….save us!” This is followed by a short (1:41) acoustic guitar interlude “T.O. Witcher” by Morse, deceptively simple in its genius, mixing classical and country motifs. The album ends, as noted, with “Bells of Saint James”.
In The Spirit of Things was a commercial failure, in part because MCA was shaking up its roster and spent little effort or money on promoting the album; the label eventually dropped the band. Critically, the album garnered mixed reactions, with some critics faulting poor or “dated” production (“the cavernous, DDD-wannabe production screams 1988” states the AllMusic review). Some Kansas fans, hoping for a return to the band’s classic, Seventies sound, were unhappy with the album—and the band, of course, eventually returned to that sound in subsequent years, with Morse departing and Livgren returning to write, play, and produce the 2000 album Somewhere to Elsewhere, which enjoyed praise from both fans and critics. But while In the Spirit of Things is hardly perfect or classic, it is too often overlooked or underappreciated, which is a shame since it certainly has a unique spirit all of its own.