Classic Music Reviews: Minstrel in the Gallery by Jethro Tull

Note to my readers: This is one of several albums I reviewed in my first year as a blogger that I’ve been dying to rewrite. When I first started the blog, I listened to expert advice to keep my posts short and sweet, and that was a mistake. After a while, I felt that I was cheating both artists and readers with presentations of superficial mediocrity. In preparation for my upcoming collection of reviews, I have rewritten nearly all the reviews from that first year, including the bulk of The Beatles’ catalog and several iconic albums. These reviews will appear here and on 50thirdand3rd over the next few months. 

Minstrel in the Gallery is what came after the crash. Jethro Tull had achieved the much sought-after status of musical darlings with the back-to-back releases of Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, only to discover that musical darlingship was as ephemeral as a one-night stand with a hooker who steals your wallet on her way out the door. The critics of the era sadistically skewered them for A Passion Play, and the follow-up album, War Child, was a failed movie project slapped together from the Chateau d’Isaster remnants and Aqualung outtakes—a bowl of mush unlikely to please anyone. Though the album featured a hit single (“Bungle in the Jungle”) and a Tull classic (“Skating Away”), the consensus among the musical cognoscenti was that Jethro Tull was yesterday’s news.

Unsurprisingly, the critics hated Minstrel in the Gallery. The wise men at Rolling Stone wrote, “The fact that Ian Anderson and the lads have once again plundered the British secular music tradition signifies little and delivers less.”

My readers know the agony I endure when I am forced to disagree with Rolling Stone, so please, feel my pain when I tell you I think Minstrel in the Gallery is one of Tull’s better albums—and if hadn’t been for the unfortunate detour called Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die, Tull’s musical progression to the superb Songs from the Wood would have been obvious to even the most tone-deaf critic. Minstrel in the Gallery features outstanding compositions, original arrangements and Martin Barre and Barriemore Barlow at full power. At the center is a wounded Ian Anderson, recovering from critical dismissal and divorce, delivering some of his finest lyrics and revealing himself as vulnerable and exquisitely human.

The title track is a joint composition by Ian Anderson and Martin Barre, presented in three segments. The first is the “minstrel” version of the song, introduced by a royal toady, whose voice is obscured by the minstrels whispering to each other, “I don’t think they’re going to like this, though.” We hear a single acoustic guitar chord, followed immediately by Ian Anderson singing the opening line. His vocal is supported by acoustic guitar, flute, rough hand-held percussion and background singers whose voices are in deep echo designed to reproduce the sound of a great hall. The lyrics are written in the form of “oblique suggestions” reminiscent of the Elizabethans, with puns and asides packed together like sardines in a can:

He titillated men of action
Belly warming, hands still rubbing
On the parts they never mention
He pacified the nappy-suffering
Infant-bleating, one-line jokers
TV documentary makers, overfed and undertakers

The segment ends on a quickly strummed chord supported by a pattern of rising notes, a perfect anticipatory introduction to the second part. Martin Barre rips off his jerkin, exposes his bare chest and flames shoot out of his Les Paul with stunning effect. A series of declining dissonant notes is the signal to the rest of the band to get with it, and Barriemore Barlow and Jeffrey are right on cue. The segment is full of bash, shifting rhythms, screaming guitar, sudden starts and stops and memorable scraps of melody—often I’ll hum along with Martin’s lead, accompanying my vocal with hip shaking and arm movements that would make for a very erotic music video.

At first, I’m disappointed when part two becomes part three, but my disappointment is quickly shattered when Martin returns and plays the delightfully crunchy and clever riff that serves as the motif for the final segment. The verses are identical to those in the opening segment, but here the accompaniment is distorted guitar chords played in stop time bursts supported by Barlow’s fabulous drums. The repetition of the lyrics emphasizes that the minstrel’s lot is one of perpetual vulnerability, whether you’re talking about the troubadours of the Middle Ages or the griots who traverse the African continent to this day. Given his difficulties with the critics, it made perfect sense for Ian Anderson to link himself to his historical companions.

And I just love it when Tull kicks ass, and they seriously kick ass on “Minstrel in the Gallery.”

Next up is playful ode to the Norse gods, “Cold Wind to Valhalla,” with an opening that demonstrates that Ian Anderson was one hell of an acoustic guitar picker. The dense lyrics are similar in structure to “Minstrel in the Gallery,” and like the opener, the song moves from light to heavy over the course of the performance. It’s nowhere near as satisfying as its predecessor, but still a fascinating piece of music.

Classic Tull flute opens “Black Satin Dancer,” but what I really notice in the opening passage are John Evan’s marvelous piano runs, which are played with a very deft touch. I’ll also compliment David Palmer on the string arrangements after having blasted the crap out of his work on War Child: here he uses a string quartet rather than hiring every unemployed symphony musician in London. Although the dynamics in this song are even more varied than the first two tracks, I’ve always imagined this piece played on a very dark stage—minimal lighting, the spots slightly off the performers, the stage bare except for players and instruments—allowing listeners to close their eyes and focus on the sensuous lyrics:

Come, let me play with you, black satin dancer
In all your giving, given is the answer
Tearing life from limb and looking sweeter than the brightest flower in my garden
Begging your pardon — shedding right unreason
Over sensation fly the fleeting seasons
Thin wind whispering on broken mandolin
Bending the minutes — the hours ever turning on that old gold story of mercy
Desperate breathing, tongue nipple-teasing.
Your fast river flowing—your northern fire fed.
Come, black satin dancer, come softly to bed.

“Requiem” ends what used to be called Side One in the days of LP’s, a nice, if somewhat derivative melody saved by the melancholy description of the end of a relationship:

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train timetable blurred
Close behind the taxi stand
Saw her face in the teardrop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go

“Side Two” opens with the remarkable expression of emotional turmoil, “One White Duck / 010 = Nothing at All.” Again, the topic is relationship failure, presented in the form of a one-sided argument. The dramatic monologue standard of excellence is Robert Browning, but Ian Anderson makes a more than credible contribution to the poetic genre in this piece, a sort of modern version of Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” While Ian Anderson’s “character” is not the smug, arrogant and completely oblivious prick revealed in that poem, his attempt at self-and-other deception and simmering self-pity are exposed in a similar manner.

So fly away Peter and fly away Paul
From the finger-tip ledge of contentment.
The long restless rustle of high heel boots calls.
And I’m probably bound to deceive you after all.

Something must be wrong with me and my brain
If I’m so patently unrewarding
But my dreams are for dreaming and best left that way
And my zero to your power of ten equals nothing at all.

Palmer’s string arrangement is exquisite, never overwhelming the fundamental acoustic sound and allowing the piece to end with the sound of an acoustic guitar trying to erase the diary entry we’ve just heard. A tour de force performance by Ian Anderson.

The suite that follows, “Baker Street Muse,” is a far more coherent, flowing contribution to the form than the slapdash cut-and-paste job The Beatles gave us on Side Two of Abbey Road. The narrative is a stroll through the London streets of 1975 where we find the neurotic minstrel discovering his fellow citizens craving sex while struggling with performance anxiety, demanding self-sufficiency from those who spend the nights on our streets, and kicking the artists (anyone we know) to the gutter along with the bums. The sexual escapade piece, “The Pygmy and the Whore” features some of Ian Anderson’s wittiest lyrics:

“Big bottled Fräulein, put your weight on me,”
Said the Pygmy to The Whore,
Desperate for more in his assault upon the mountain.
Little man, his youth a fountain.
Overdrafted and still counting.
Vernacular, verbose: an attempt at getting close to where he came from.

In the doorway of the stars, between Blandford Street and Mars,
Proposition, deal. Fly button feel.
Testicle testing.
Wallet ever-bulging.
Dressed to the left, divulging the wrinkles of his years.
Wedding-bell induced fears.
Shedding bell-end tears in the pocket of her resistance.

The musical flow throughout the suite is strong, and the reverse narrative in the final phases, similar to the ending of Thick as a Brick, is very well-executed. The suite ends with Ian Anderson trapped in the recording studio, shouting, “I can’t get out!” I’ve always taken this as his final capitulation to his destiny—dude, you’re a minstrel, and minstrels are going to get kicked in the nuts from time to time. Get the fuck over it and move on!

The album ends unremarkably with “Grace,” a curiously silly little piece that robs “Baker Street Muse” of its rightful place as the true close of Ian Anderson’s journey through the self. Minor flaws aside, I’ve always considered Minstrel in the Gallery one of the essential expression of Tull-ness, and a sadly neglected masterpiece.

3 responses

  1. Great review. You obviously know a lot about Tull. Love Baker Street Muse.

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  2. […] Brick rated as one of Tull’s three best albums, as I’d reserved Aqualung, Stand Up and Minstrel in the Gallery for those three spots. I took a moment to enter “revisit Thick as a Brick” on the […]

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  3. […] Minstrel in the Gallery […]

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