Concept albums are tricky. Sometimes they work very well [Pink Floyd’s The Wall], and sometimes they don’t work at all [Kiss’ Music from The Elder]. In both cases, Bob Ezrin produced them. So it is the case with the Kansas 1988 release In the Spirit of Things. Kansas had a “big” sound, and Ezrin’s productions have been known for their bombast. One would think a Kansas-Bob Ezrin match would be a match made in heaven. And for the sound of In the Spirit of Things, it’s a very good match. But back to the concept album thing. Only half of In the Spirit of Things is a concept based on the catastrophic flood that hit a small Kansas town named Neosho Falls in 1951. According to drummer Phil Ehart, he and Steve Walsh heard of Neosho Falls through an old friend who worked at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka. Their friend told them about Neosho Falls and took them there. According to Ehart:
The songs that form this story are not told in a narrative. Rather, they are little vignettes, little snapshots of people and places of that time. Originally the band planned to make the album a collection of songs about 10 or 11 different people, but Bob Ezrin suggested all the people live in the same town. This gave the album more focus. The performances of these songs are among the best Kansas committed to tape in the post-Kerry Livgren era.
The “concept” songs:
Ghosts – The story begins in a “ghost town”, with weathered tombstones, a crumbling bell tower [Walsh wrote the bell “must have softened every soul that came to pray”], broken schools, rusty swing sets and weeds. Something bad happened here that made all the people go away. It’s a place where dreams of people who used to live there had their dreams blown away. The singer feels the presence of the ghosts who have returned to dream again.
One Big Sky – The Reverend James Cleveland and his choir join the proceedings here, a song about fate and circumstance. Quest for power; pay the cost/Liberty in tempest tossed/ If we don't stop them, we'll be lost – fight for your own liberty because no one else will. Is this alluding to the Korean War, which was being fought in the timeframe of the Neosho Falls story?
The Preacher – “We all gotta come to the light together…follow me!” There’s more of James Cleveland’s choir here. Walsh keeps referring to “the Belt of Hercules”. My best guess is this is from the Greek myth of the ninth labor of Hercules, where Eurystheus ordered Hercules to bring him the belt of Hippolyte. What does Greek mythology have to do with Western religion anyway? How Kansas convinced James Cleveland and his choir to sing on a song that seems to deride preachers, I’ll never know. Perhaps ‘the preacher’ in this song is much like the man in the next song, that is, a fake. Perhaps, just perhaps, James Cleveland and his singers didn’t like phony preachers either.
Rainmaker – This is told from the point of view of a con man who tells a haunting story. He used to be a gun runner and a medicine man, whatever it took to earn a buck. But in a drought-stricken Kansas “one-horse town” [the ‘one horse’ is agriculture], he became a ‘rainmaker’. The townspeople would pay him up front to make it rain, to “light a fire - pray, and dance around, tell them it'd rain so they'd all go to bed”. Once asleep, the ‘rainmaker’ would skip town, but the ‘hand of fate got outta hand.’ But he started to dance, and the sky went dark. In the background, James Cleveland’s choir is singing “Rainmaker, rainmaker, save this one-horse town…” The ‘Rainmaker’ had ‘summoned down the Holy Ghost…the searing wind and the clouds of dust, and hell came raining down.’ That storm spelled the end for the one-horse town.
Bells of St. James - A soldier fighting in Korea gets a Dear John letter, probably from his wife in Neosho Falls. Imagine getting such a letter saying not only has your wife left you, but also your home isn’t there anymore. Presumably, they married at a church called St. James, and the GI asks if the bells are still ringing. Those bells are probably those alluded to in Ghosts [the bells that “must have softened every soul that came to pray”]. Our hero is trying to take comfort somewhere, and perhaps hearing the bells is that comfort zone.
The record company [MCA] wanted hit singles. Kansas wasn’t a “singles” band, but they did have a modest hit with All I Wanted from 1986’s Power. Their two big singles [Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind] were “happy accidents”. Writer Kerry Livgren would say to this day that he wouldn’t know how to write a hit single. So too would Steve Walsh. They just happened. But in those times Kansas were competing with the likes of teeny-boppers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany on one hand, and hair metal like Bon Jovi on the other. So Kansas [probably against their better instincts, but they did what their paymasters at the record company told them] recorded three songs from outside songwriters - One Man, One Heart, Once in a Lifetime, and Stand Beside Me. The performances of these songs were as good as anybody could make them, but they’re all dripping with cheese. The songs are as generic as the decade from whence they came. Of the three, One Man, One Heart is ok – skip the other two.
The band recorded three other songs unrelated to the concept story:
House On Fire – This rocker is a keeper. I’m not sure this is part of the concept story, but Phil Ehart related that some of the stories told to him about Neosho Falls on the weekends painted the town as a “hell-raising house on fire.” It starts out with some otherworldly experimental guitar work from Steve Morse, which leads to organ introduction from Steve Walsh, not unlike Steve Morse’s next band, Deep Purple. There’s some very good guitar interplay between Morse and Rich Williams. There’s some excellent Hammond B-3 work from Walsh at the end. On the singing end of things the chorus gets a bit repetitive, but the music more than makes up for it.
I Counted on Love – This one is a bland 80s power ballad. This is a “skip” track.
Inside of Me – This is a decent pop song, but nothing more.
T.O. Witcher – This a short, solo acoustic piece from Steve Morse named after a former teacher. I wish it was longer [it’s only 1:39].
In the Spirit of Things is somewhat of a peak for Kansas, or at least it was for Steve Walsh. This album has a suite of songs written by him that were sharply focused and well-executed. Suffice to say, here he emerged from the long shadow of Kerry Livgren. Walsh's voice was in outstanding form but would never be the same after this. An anachronism, In the Spirit of Things was a concept work in an era of short attention spans that demanded the instant high of insipid, vapid hit singles. This would prove to be Kansas's last album for a major label. MCA didn’t bother to expend any effort to promote it, and when the album failed to set the world on fire, MCA dropped them. Kansas would not make another studio album for seven years. Steve Morse would leave the band to concentrate on his solo, instrumental work and then eventually succeed [but not replace] Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple in 1994.
It is a shame the album is sequenced such that the non-concept songs are intermingled with the concept songs, thus diluting the impact of the story.
Here’s the album sequence as released:
2. "One Big Sky"
3. "Inside of Me"
4. "One Man, One Heart"
5. "House on Fire"
6. "Once in a Lifetime"
7. "Stand Beside Me"
8. "I Counted on Love"
9. "The Preacher"
11. "T.O. Witcher"
12. "Bells of Saint James"
Here’s what I would do in my iPod playlist and have some continuity to keep the story going [I gave House on Fire the benefit of the doubt]:
2. "One Big Sky"
3. "House on Fire"
4. "The Preacher"
6. "Bells of Saint James"
7. "T.O. Witcher"
I keep the concept songs and ditch the rest. I also keep T.O. Witcher as a “Little Martha” coda to the concept songs. The concept songs are worth every penny. On a scale of 1 to 5 [5 being “buy this now”, 1 being “don’t even think it”] I give the concept songs a 4.5, the album as whole a 3.
Interview with Phil Ehart - By Tom Popson, January 27, 1989, Chicago Tribune