After a muddled attempt at a rock musical in Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die, which had followed the near-universal critical rejection of A Passion Play, War Child and Minstrel in the Gallery, Ian Anderson was clearly a man in need of a reset button. Given Tull’s trajectory, it seemed pretty unlikely that they would return to their R&B roots at this late date, and their singular version of rock was beginning to sound tiresome to the listening public. Ian Anderson’s songwriting seemed more forced than fluid, so it must have been pretty clear that a fresh perspective was necessary.
What to do, what to do?
A few years prior to the events in question, Jethro Tull had employed Steeleye Span to be their warmup act for part of the Passion Play tour, and a year after that, Ian Anderson had produced one of Steeleye Span’s albums, Now We Are Six. Given the evidence of a pre-existing interest in traditional British folk music and the fact that he’d settled down with his new wife on a country farm, all the elements were lining up to take Tull down the road to the music of yore.
However, if they were going to pull off this transformation, Ian Anderson and Tull had to fully commit to this new direction. A half-assed muddle wasn’t going to restore Tull’s reputation as a purveyor of quality music.
The a capella madrigal that opens Songs from the Wood tells the listener right at the start that Tull has gone the full monty. It is a clear, striking departure from anything they had done before. It also sets the stage for the most coherent and unified effort in Tull history. Not so much a concept album as a thematic album, Ian Anderson and company apply the conventions of British folk music with remarkable facility to help us reflect on the good and evil inside us that have been and will be engaged in battle as long as humans inhabit the planet.
“Songs from the Wood” is a joyous celebration of the natural world and the healing powers it holds for the human soul. Even for me, a totally committed urbanite who loves city life and wouldn’t be caught dead doing filthy things like camping or hiking, this is a beautiful number. What I identify with is the parallel message of “get back to the basics and free yourself of the superficial bullshit,” a sentiment that Mr. Anderson expresses more playfully in the line, “Dust you down from tip to toe.” The craving for simplicity and clarity in a confused, confusing world is a universal theme, one that Ray Davies had previously explored through his message of preservation. The choice to present the theme in “galliards and lute songs served in chilling ale” was pure genius. The background music, a building mélange of acoustic strum, lute, flute touches, hand-clapping, organ and good old Martin, is a delight. And three cheers for John Glascock on bass! Buried somewhat on his maiden voyage in their previous effort, he’s a strong presence on Songs from the Wood, working with music that demands much more capability than old Jeffrey ever could have mustered.
The theme of rebirth in nature is most directly expressed in the second song, the all-Ian performance of “Jack-in-the-Green.” The figure of Jack-in-the-Green has a curious, non-linear history, but for Ian Anderson, Jack is certainly the symbol of the life force of nature itself, a staunch ally in the battle against mindless modernism:
Jack, do you never sleep?
Does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so . . .
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.
“Cup of Wonder” comes next, and rather than slipping into analytical mode, I have to say if I made a list of my favorite “joyful” songs, this would be at the top. The feel of this song is wondrous, with its foot-tapping rhythms and rich weaving of a multitude of voices and instruments. There are so many wonderful touches, from the spots of lute to the occasional low octave vocal support in the final verse and chorus and the combination of Barriemore Barlow and John Glascock keeping the whole thing moving despite the rhythmic complexity . . . I just love this song and that’s all I have to say about it! If you want to delve into its symbolism, I refer you to the Cup of Wonder site to view the extensive annotations for all the songs on Songs From the Wood.
But “Cup of Wonder” is not my favorite song on the album! There’s no way a leather-loving, sensuously-sadistic, whip-wielding chick is not going to fully embrace “Hunting Girl!” Even before we get to the story about a poor soul’s encounter with a sophisticated horsewoman, the dramatic introduction culminating in a classic Martin Barre hard-pick attack makes me shudder with joy. Ian is perfect in the character of Everyman with his understated vocal communicating self-deprecation and a strange combination of awe and embarrassment. And the imagery! Perfection!
Crop handle carved in bone, sat high upon a throne of finest English leather
The Queen of all the pack, this joker raised his hat and talked about the weather
All should be warned about this high-born hunting girl
She took this simple man’s downfall in hand: I raised the flag that she unfurled.
Boot leather flashing and spur necks the size of my thumb,
This highborn hunter had tastes as strange as they come, come
Unbridled passion, I took the bit in my teeth
Her standing over me on my knees underneath, underneath
My lady, be discrete, I must get to my feet and go back to the farm
Whilst I appreciate you are no deviate, I might come to some harm
I’m not inclined to acts refined, if that’s how it goes
Oh, high-born hunting girl, I’m just a normal low-born so and so.
I also deeply appreciate the characterization of my favorite form of intimate activity as “acts refined” and the additional validation that I am no deviate!
Tull cools it down a bit with another wonderful and yes, joyous piece of music, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” Was Ian Anderson ever in better spirits? Of all the songs on the album, this one best demonstrates the power of the combination of British folk and modern rock. The vocals and hand clapping are sweetly traditional; Martin’s wonderfully sharp power chords and John Evan’s contra-intuitive piano are of modern times. David Palmer’s synthesizer work gives the piece a grand, magical air that raises the power of the song tenfold . . . and the bells on the fade are a child’s dream come true.
Unfortunately, not all is sweetness and light in England’s green and pleasant land! Manipulative males roam the landscape, Reynardine-like, to lay waste the willowy wenches! “Velvet Green” is the darkest number on the album, describing in painful detail what today we would call “date rape.” The structure of the piece amplifies the meaning: the gruesome tale of abuse is sandwiched between idyllic images of green swards where sex is described as a joyous expression of natural instinct (“Never a care, with your legs in the air, loving.”) The coldness of the predator in the central section is intensified by Ian’s choice to make this a first-person narrative, and his vocal is suitably leering against a stark, intimate acoustic guitar background reminiscent of the guitar part on “One White Duck” from Minstrel in the Gallery. The last line of the central section features one of the most powerful images Ian Anderson ever created, shocking in its brutal simplicity:
Now I may tell you that it’s love and not just lust
And if we live the lie, let’s lie in trust
On golden daffodils, to catch the silver stream
That washes out the wild oat seed on velvet green.
We’ll dream as lovers under the stars,
Of civilizations raging afar,
And the ragged dawn breaks on your battle scars
As you walk home cold and alone upon velvet green.
“The Whistler” follows, a curious choice for a single release, but another beautiful arrangement with complex and contrasting rhythms adding spice and a fabulous whistle performance from Ian Anderson. “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” is the most controversial piece on the album, with Martin parroting bagpipe in what seems an extraordinarily loud and heavy guitar performance on a record so oriented to tradition. I rather like this dirge that tells the story of a man who journeys far and wide to be with his woman only to find his place usurped at the supper table. The narrative shifts from third to first person in the last line, a very effective device. As for the loudness issue, if you’ve ever heard bagpipes at close proximity, you have an intimate understanding of just how loud those suckers can be. But if your ears need healing, “Fire at Midnight” closes the album, a gentle and homey love song that is the perfect ending for this most beautiful Tull album.
Songs from the Wood is not only a great album, it’s a great album that the public actually noticed. According to Wikipedia, “Songs from the Wood was the first Tull album to receive unambiguously positive reviews since the time of Thick as a Brick (1972) . . . The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart, making it the last top ten album for the band to date.” A clear artistic vision and a full commitment to realizing that vision can go a long way, especially when combined with exceptional musical collaboration and a theme that touches the heart of the modern soul.