Kansas’ debut album showed a band unsure about its direction: were they to play unpretentious Allman Brothers Band style boogie or were they destined to bring European art-rock to the American masses? On Song for America , their second album, they thought they had finally decided on their ticket to eternal rock and roll fame and attempted to create a prog-rock masterpiece.
The most fascinating aspect of this album, from a modern perspective, is how long it took Kansas to find its unique voice and how the record industry gave them the time to find it. Two albums into their career, Kansas still had not discovered the flashy, classic rock bombast that they would perfect on their hit albums Leftoverture and Point of Know Return. Even the traditional “rock” songs on this album, “Down the Road” and “Lonely Street” sound less like the all-American pomp of “Carry on Wayward Son” and more like the band attempting to ape British bands aping American blues musicians. Here was a band that named itself Kansas, after the birthplace of Dorothy Gale, releasing an album entitled Song for America that sounded as if they came from Britain. On this album, the band even downplays Robbie Steinhardt’s manic fiddling in favor of a wave of synthesizers seemingly borrowed from Emerson and Wakeman. The fact that it was Don Kirshner, the thoroughly commercially-oriented co-creator of the Monkees, who put his faith in such an unlikely group and such a hard commercial sell speaks volumes about the lack of vision in today’s music industry.
Song for America itself is more consistent than their self-titled debut. The title track was the first great Kansas song: a ten-minute epic about America that managed to be grand without being sprawling. Singing about America’s great potential and eventual ruination, the band produced a song that was strong enough to support their prog-ier impulses. In fact, these European prog stylings, even the pompous keyboards, work to the song’s advantage, highlighting the alienation between the singer and the subject. The Kirshner-approved “single edit” of “Song for America” is included at the end of the album as a bonus track, and it reveals how strong the full-length version is. This three-minute distillation includes the most memorable highlights, including a catchy piano passage as good as anything from the Yes catalogue, but it feels neutered. Every instrumental movement in “Song for America” adds something significant to the song, and the song suffers without these sections. “Song for America” became a live Kansas favorite, as well as an FM hit of sorts, and was the first sign that Kirshner’s gamble was about to pay off.
The rest of the album, with the exception of the “Bringing It Back” retread “Down the Road” and the atypically ferocious “Lonely Street”, follows the prog-rock path of the title track with diminishing results. “Lamplight Symphony” attempts to deafen the listener with a parade of synthesizers in order to hide an underwritten and overextended composition. “The Devil Game” is an early unsuccessful attempt by the band to fuse its “rock” side with its “prog” side. The whole album comes to an end with the astoundingly pretentious “Incomudro-Hymm to the Altman” which is the most prog track that the band ever recorded. Title aside, the 12-minute epic jam about accepting old age and death actually does show that if they had wanted to go that route Kansas could have been perfectly acceptable third-tier prog-rockers. They not only had the skills to keep a listener interested in 12-minute jams, but they also had the necessary lack of irony to sing lines like “Linger in the void, and like a beacon in the night / Purity will fill your soul with ever-present light” and mean them.
Kansas, of course, decided to go a different path, one which allowed them to make a sizeable amount of money and develop a stable group of hardcore fans who continue to support them. Thus, Song for America became something of a dead end for the band. Despite its flaws, the album presents a fascinating peek into the road not taken by this classic rock group.