Classic Rock Review

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Jethro Tull Aqualung (1971)


American audiences needn’t be introduced to this album – as far as I know, lots of its songs are constantly recycled on the radio, and overall, if Jethro Tull are to be associated with anything by anybody, it’s probably the menacing heavy riff which opens the title track.

The biggest ever commercial whopper for Tull, it is that good indeed – even though the same American audiences were slow on the move to really appreciate Stand Up. Anyway, for aspeaking out loud, it’s tons better than Benefit, and a true all-time classic. I may easily say that there’s not a single bad song on the album – for the very last time in the entire Tull career (barring the one song albums, of course, one of which is all good and the other… ahem… well, read on, oh gentle listener).

Maybe it has something to do with a radical change in line-up – this is where both John Evan and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond stand up to the blackboard (well, Evan did play some keybs on Benefit, but that doesn’t count – he wasn’t even a legitimate band member). Maybe Anderson was desperately looking for FM radio hits. Maybe he just had a good day. I don’t know. What I know is that this is the last Tull record which is listenable at first listen and memorable at first memory (forgive me my silly analogies).

Actually, it is something of a bridge between the lovely early blues-psycho days and the later murky overblown pompous fantasy days. This is the first of Anderson’s multiple concept albums, but the concept is still rather just a basis for the songs than vice versa. The plot is as follows: Man created God and God created Aqualungs. Or was it the opposite? Oh, never mind. It’s all written in a parody on John’s Gospel placed on the album cover.

In other words, it’s a stupid, self-indulgent concept that bashes organized religion and sometimes borders on bashing the very essence of religion – especially on tracks like ‘My God’, although Anderson always takes care so as not to cross the thin borderline completely. That’s not to say that the lyrics are bad: the underlying ideas and principles are very simple, but this is Anderson at his most poetic and involving, and his imagery has never been stronger, considering that on here he’s still able to uphold the balance between form and content – since Thick As A Brick and particularly later on, his lyrics would go off the deep end completely.

Let us not forget the immaculate melodies, though. The radio classics include the multi-part title track, highlighted by the above-mentioned cool riff, very expressive singing that ranges from a special Anderson-style ‘vomit-inducing sneer’ to passionate and heartfelt, and a mad, ecstatic, rise-to-a-shattering-climax guitar solo courtesy of Martin Barre; ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ with its gorgeous crescendo in the flute-dominated introduction and Anderson’s bitter condemnation of the middle class society; and especially my favourite – the bad luck anthem ‘Locomotive Breath’.

Have you ever heard a riff imitating the slow progress of a train? Then you haven’t heard ‘Locomotive Breath’, a song perfect from the first notes of the John Evan Bach-imitating piano introduction to the majestic fade out with Ian singing that ‘there’s no way to slow down’. If it ain’t my favourite song by Jethro Tull, that’s just because it isn’t on my turntable at the present moment. Yes, I admit it’s rather naive for a person who’s gone through the entire Tull catalog to announce that his favourite song by the band is the one radio standard that’s most popular among the beer-drinkin’ crowds, but what can I do if the song’s pure and clear genius? Forgive me, lovers of Tull. At least I don’t abuse beer.

But even if you don’t hear the other tracks on the radio every five minutes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth of radioplay. ‘Hymn 43’ may not be great, but, once again, the riff is an absolute classic (and this is where you’ll find the famous line about how ‘if Jesus saves, he’d better save himself…’, so much hated by orthodoxal church abiders who intentionally neglect that the second half of the phrase goes ‘…from the gory glory seekers who use his name in death’). Barre and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond chug along on the track like mad, transforming it into a true hard rock masterpiece.

The plaintive, desperate ‘Up To Me’ is based on a cool repetitive flute line, ‘Mother Goose’ is just a funny tune (having nothing to do with the notorious rhymes), and the lengthiest track on here – the conceptual climax of ‘My God’ – also manages to keep the listener’s attention, going off from rifffests onto bits of Bach onto bits of Russian folk music (not that Anderson knew very well how to handle Russian folk music, but at least he made an entertaining try). Plus there are several short acoustic links which all the Tull-haters try to accentuate by saying all kinds of things about how they suck and so on, but I personally don’t see any trouble with them: Anderson is a decent classical guitar player, and anyway all the three are shorter than two minutes. No need to worry, Tull-haters!

‘Wind-Up’ is the only song I could live without on here, but maybe it’s just because it’s placed at the end. I’ve always thought that the best songs on any album should be placed in the beginning (so as not to let down the listener from the very start) and in the end (so as not to leave the feeling of being bored and deceived). As you see, Ian rarely fulfills the second part of the statement. But it’s not bad either way.

It’s still a little bit weaker than Stand Up, in my opinion, which is why the rating is a wee bit lower; the acoustic links and ‘Wind-Up’ and some instrumental bits on ‘My God’ and… well, little nasty tidbits now and there, couldn’t really grab ’em by the scruff o’ the neck cause they’re so tiny. But “near-immaculate classic” would be a suitable definition, too, and an album where many of the more reserved Tull lovers set a fat point. However, with all due respect, we’ll try and go dig a little deeper to see that Anderson’s talents were not yet exhausted. By no means no.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Jethro Tull Aqualung | | Leave a comment