In its early days of popular success the band Kansas was often ridiculed by critics who found its home-grown electicism pretentious. Nevertheless the band enjoyed multi-platinum fame via Leftoverture (1976) and Point Of Know Return (1977). The chief architect of the alleged excesses, Kerry Livgren, used his music and cryptic lyrics to describe his elliptical spiritual odyssey through mysticism, Eastern religion, and Urantia. In 1979 Livgren and Kansas bassist Dave Hope became born again Christians, and the music took a decidedly zealous turn (Vinyl Confessions, 1982). Vocalist Steve Walsh quit the band, unwilling to sing Christian lyrics. Livgren and Hope left in 1983 to form the Christian rock band AD.
In the subsequent years both Kansas and Livgren have passed through deep waters. Walsh returned to Kansas and co-wrote music for a couple of albums with Dixie Dregs guitar guru Steve Morse. But the tandem never solved the ‘80s musical puzzle, and Kansas slipped into obscurity. Meanwhile AD folded due to legal problems, Dave Hope went into full time ministry, and Livgren toiled at farming, church planting, and making occasional home-made albums.
Livgren recently received requests form loyal fans to compile a volume of his previously unheard solo material. He responded in April of this year with the delightful Collector’s Sedition. Regarding the rehabilitated songs, Livgren wrote, “...they have inspired me to write new works in musical directions that I might not have otherwise embarked upon. It has launched me (thankfully) into a very prolific period.” Somewhere to Elsewhere, the latest Kansas album which features the original members of the band, highlights Livgren’s newfound inspiration. Eluding the stigma that usually attaches to “reunion” albums, Kansas has made what is arguably its finest album ever.
Livgren’s material on Somewhere to Elsewhere springs from matured vision. He avoids the pedantic pomp that bloated Point Of Know Return while maintaining the orderliness and sensibility of his best work. On this album Livgren becomes a kind of musical Norman Rockwell, crafting songs that are detailed, dramatic, and ultimately reassuring. At 50 years of age and settled in his faith, Livgren has no demons to exorcise through this music. There is not a hint of dissonance. Rather, he aims to create transcendent yet earthy images of life as it should be. Classically inspired, Livgren’s music has a strange resemblance to that of 20th century composer Howard Hanson, the champion of American romanticism. Somewhere to Elsewhere is a haunting rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Hanson’s Song of Democracy (1957).
The album opens with “Icarus II,” an unapologetic, patriotic tribute to a B-17 pilot’s self-sacrificed. Were this not based on a true story one could fancy Willie Gillis as the hero. The band dishes our heavy blues rock on “When the World Was Young” and “Not Man Big,” and Rich Williams’ guitar (“Grand Fun Alley”) sizzles like a 12-ounce T-bone grilling at a 4th of July cookout. Yet, the band retains the cozy feel of the good ol’ boys jamming in the back of Shuffleton’s Barbershop. At key points the album is punctuated by unabashed sentimentality. Livgren’s piano and Robby Steinhardt’s violin join to evoke the tender innocence illustrated on the 1949 Brown & Bigelow Four Seasons calendar.
In years past Kansas albums were marked by an uneasy, antithetical tension between prog and classic rock. Here the strains are pleasingly integrated. “Myriad,” an overhauled piece Livgren originally wrote in 1970, includes all of his idiosyncrasies: introduction of themes, extended detour through unsettling jazz-inspired passages, and recapitulation. This format was employed on some of his finer early works, including “Journey from Mariabronn,” “Song for America,” and “The Pinnacle.” But here the flow is looser and laid-back in contrast to the nervous noodling of the past. The overtly evangelical “Distant Vision” is particularly potent with its elaboration of mood changes bound together by an accessible melody. Time has eroded Walsh’s attitude against God-centered lyrics, but Livgren’s homily has also become more personal, transparent, and less polemical.
Livgren’s true genius is displayed on one of the album’s shorter tracks, “Byzantium.” Beneath a facade of liturgical chants and arabesque strings lies a country-picked acoustic guitar, hinting that this is really an allusion to the fall of the American empire. Apocalyptic themes have preoccupied Livgren’s post-conversion music for years. Between tracks a disembodied voice makes the ironic assertion, “Americans have never done the wrong thing for a long time,” yet there is an underlying awareness that American will not fulfill her manifest destiny. The same hope/foreboding is expressed in these lines from Hanson’s “Song of Democracy” (penned by Whitman):
“Sail, sail thy best, ship of democracy
Of value is thy freight.
‘Tis not the present only, the past is also stored in thee.
Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone,
Not of thy western continent alone…
With thee Time voyages entrusts
The antecedent nations sink or swim with thee.”
Livgren might have added, “thou bearest their baggage, too.” In “When the World Was Young” Livgren writes, “we can never change without till we change within.” And while America’s destiny is in doubt, the microcosm called Kansas has proven that internal change not only revives but yields better fruit. On Somewhere to Elsewhere, Kansas recovers its true voice. Like Rockwell, it extols Americana. Like Hanson, it is emboldened by reckless romanticism. But how does it play in Peoria? This is old-fashioned classic rock, progressively seasoned with a dash of religion and a pinch of patriotism. Regardless of Livgren’s versatility as a composer and arranger, this album proves that Kansas, now in its 30th year, remains a solid bully pulpit for his musical expression.
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