Classic Music Review: War Child by Jethro Tull

war-child

Not their greatest effort, but not as bad as some make it out to be. Click to buy.

For an album splotched together from a failed recording project, a failed movie project, a concept involving anthropomorphism and one song from the Aqualung sessions, War Child turned out reasonably well. It would have turned out even better had they locked David Palmer in the basement during the recording process.

Palmer’s string arrangements on War Child are consistently overdone and too loud in many of the mixes. They appear in many tracks that would have been better off without them. More Martin, less David would have been nice. On the plus side, Ian Anderson’s vocals are quite energetic and the song mix displays Tull’s versatility exceptionally well. When they’re not buried by the string section, the band sounds Tull-tight.

The original War Child concept had to do with the story of a teenage girl in the afterlife meeting up with God, Lucifer and St. Peter. I’m glad they didn’t go there, as there is such a thing as spending too much time on religion. The more interesting theme—a perceptible thread that runs through “War Child” and “Queen and Country”—is the idea that all of us who live in modern society are war children who live off the fruits of conquest, whether that conquest involves shooting wars or capitalist competitiveness. While we enjoy ourselves in “the bright city mile” or while the ministers enjoy their “social whirls,” we forget that all of our fun is made possible to some extent by war and its cousins. Now that would have made for a very intriguing concept album, particularly since Al Qaeda later justified the 9/11 attacks on innocent civilians with the response, “They pay taxes, don’t they?” If we benefit from the spoils of war, are we still responsible for the war even if we don’t fire a shot?

As it is, the title track opener is an interesting and unusual piece of music. Ian was still in love with the soprano saxophone during this period, so that’s what we hear as the music fades in following the breakfast-and-battle sequence. The chord sequence is deceptive, particularly in the chorus, where a key shift takes us to A but the chorus resolves on Bb before taking us back to the incongruous E root of the verse. Ian Anderson was by this time pretty nimble with unusual chord sequences, but this one’s particularly sweet and almost Charlie Parkerish in the use of the flattened sixth. The rhythmic changes are pretty zippy, too, especially when they speed up the tempo for Ian’s sax solo. The lyrics work if you can imagine them as the start of a longer narrative; by themselves they feel like orphans. All in all, an intriguing opening if you tune out David Palmer’s string barrage.

Applying Palmerism to “Queen and Country” was a major mistake. The first verse, with just Barriemore on the drums, Martin on sharp rhythm and John Evan on accordion, makes you feel like you’ve walked into a waterside pub packed with drunken sailors and friendly wenches. What the fuck business does the string section have in a joint like that? Harrumph! Throw ‘dose bow-cradling bums off the dock! Let ’em drown in the bloody Thames, the buggers! This could have been a kick-ass song in classic Tull syncopated rhythm mode, but alas, it was not to be.

We need War Child . . . Naked.

I object less to the use of strings in “Ladies,” though I wish the final mix would have lowered the gain on that channel. “Ladies” is a very smoothly-played waltz that opens with acoustic guitar and (gasp!) flute. It’s a very pretty song with a singable melody, and I always look forward to Ian Anderson’s acoustic guitar work. The handclaps and castanets are superb touches, and though rather a surprising turn of events, the shift to a rock shuffle at the end is a nice, unexpected twist.

“Back Door Angels” comes as a blessed relief because you can actually hear the band members do what they do best: Barriemore Barlow executing hard beats and amazing rolls, John Evan filling in spaces with maximum impact and Martin getting a chance to rip, rock and roll. Ian is in fine voice, and though the lyrics are a bit challenging to interpret in their totality, they contain some fine imagery and memorable lines. “Why do the faithful have such a will to believe in something?” is something that this skeptic has never been able to answer, and I agree with other reviewers that “Think I’ll sit down and invent some fool, some grand court jester” is a representation of Ian Anderson’s role as social critic. For me the most intriguing lines are his description of the back door angels, women perceived to have powers beyond the understanding of mortal men. Some have speculated that the back door angels are nuns because of their depiction on the back cover, but nuns are too boring to have the qualities described in the song. I’m more aligned with the “women who slip in the back door” camp: women who violate convention, women of extreme erotic and sadistic power, the providers of pleasure and pain . . . but given my sexual inclinations, that could be an example of very wishful thinking. Whatever the meaning, I love these lines in particular:

`tis said they put we men to sleep with just a whisper,
And touch the heads of dying dogs — and make them linger.
They carry their candles high — and they light the dark hours.
And sweep all the country clean with pressed and scented wild-flowers.
They grow all their roses red, and paint our skies blue —
Drop one penny in every second bowl —
Make half the beggars lose

I have to say I don’t care much for the following track, “Sealion,” the first of the animal theme numbers on the album, in part because I find most songs about life in the music business a closed book open only to insiders (except for side one of Lola). I also think Ian’s trying too hard here, like a comedian who knows his material isn’t that great and tries to compensate with hyper-energy and verbalized winks.

Alternatively, when it comes to “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day,” I have nothing but endless praise and boundless admiration. I think it’s one of the finest expressions of what Jung called “the process of individuation” ever expressed in song, combining some of Ian’s most insightful lyrics with a delightfully clever arrangement. One interpretation of the meaning of life is that it is the struggle of the individual against expectations, a theme that has been present in rock music since its inception (escaping the world of square parents, the freedom of the open road, the statement of rebellion in long sideburns or long hair). Ian Anderson describes our journey out of the chrysalis with perfect clarity:

Meanwhile back in the year one
When you belonged to no one
You didn’t stand a chance son
If your pants were undone

‘Cause you were bred for humanity and sold to society
One day you’ll wake up in the present day
A million generations removed from expectations
Of being who you really want to be

The instrumentation and arrangement mirror the gentle empathy of the message while moving forward at a nice, peppy pace. The tiny bursts of accordion, glockenspiel and Martin’s cut power chords give the song a joyful liveliness that is eternally engaging. The closing lines express another important aspect of individuation that is so very, very true: as we unconsciously dash through our lives, we sometimes experience powerful, timeless moments when we become acutely aware of self and our existential separation from others:

Well, do you ever get the feeling, that the story’s too damn real
And in the present tense
Or that everybody’s on the stage and it seems like you’re the only
Person sitting in the audience

“Bungle in the Jungle” was the hit from the album, a song many consider very un-Tull with its semi-pop feel. Ian Anderson’s comments on the song during interviews have been typically contradictory: one day he says it’s about life in the heart of London’s financial centre and the next he claims it exposes American yahoos. Interestingly enough, both explanations have a ring of truth: the song is about casual human exploitation and its manifestation in mating rituals and the norms of capitalism. “Just say a word and the boys will be right there/With claws at your back to send a chill through the night air” could apply equally well to aggressive jerks accosting women in bars and the knife-in-the-back experience of competing for space at the top of the hierarchy. What makes the song work for me is Tull’s superb sense of rhythm and Ian’s engaging vocal. As for it being something of an odd duck in the Tull catalog, I’d remind people that this is a band that explored so many different genres that they’re pretty much a genre all by themselves, so almost anything goes with Tull.

“Solitaire,” Ian’s bitter response to his critics (likely Steve Peacock in particular) sort of breaks the mood established by “Skating Away” and “Bungle in the Jungle.” It feels almost like an extended aside in the context of the album, and while well-played, I think Ian should have just let the criticism bounce of his back (easier said than done, as I know all too well). “The Third Hoorah” fits better in the context of this high-energy album, but it would have been much better as part of a War Child concept album. The closing number, “Two Fingers,” is one final burst of energy, ending War Child on a note of good cheer with a witty depiction of the journey into the afterlife. I like the song, but I will be forever thankful that they chose “Wind Up” as the closer for Aqualung instead of this one: it would have ended that masterpiece on a rather jarring note.

War Child is not Tull’s greatest work, but not their worst either. You could say that David Palmer’s strings classify as one of the classic examples of the excess that marred progressive rock; then again, you could just categorize it as a very bad idea. Any album with “Back Door Angels” and “Skating Away” can’t be all that bad, and in the larger context of the Tull catalogue, I find War Child an occasionally refreshing diversion . . . but only on occasion.

5 responses

  1. […] Latest Classic Music Review: War Child by Jethro Tull […]

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  2. Great review!

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  3. I saw the Warchild tour at the Forum in LA. It was at the height of my Tull fandom — they were my favorite rock band as a young teen. A couple of years later I would start playing jazz and that was the last I heard Tull for decades. Warchild and Minstrel do not hold up for me as well as the early records, but I agree that Skating Away is a great song. Anderson is a good entertainer if not a little muggy — weird facial expressions between phrases!

    Talented band.

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    1. I grew up with Tull—both parents are huge fans, but my mother has a special attraction because she’s a flautist as well (and her daughter followed in her footsteps). I never saw them live but my parents saw them several times—they’re right here so I read them your comment and they saw the War Child concert at the Forum, too, because for some reason the Bay Area wasn’t on their itinerary that year. I find Tull’s musical journey fascinating . . . and I never would have heard the end of it from my parents had I not done a series on them. Minstrel is one of my favorites, but I will say they were much more consistent in terms of quality during their earlier years.

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