Classic Music Review: The Broadsword and the Beast by Jethro Tull

114768115Let’s place The Broadsword and the Beast in the proper context.

After the mid-period masterpiece Songs from the Wood, Tull released three so-so studio albums: Heavy Horses, Stormwatch and A. Stormwatch has some very strong pieces like “Flying Dutchman” and “Dun Ringill” and some very weak pieces like “North Sea Oil.” Heavy Horses was pretty weak, though the live version of “No Lullaby” on Bursting Out is pretty solid. A was supposed to be an Ian Anderson solo effort but was Tull-i-cized by Chrysalis. It features a heavy emphasis on synthesized sound and I really only like one song: “Fylingdale Flyer.”

After The Broadsword and the Beast came the curious Under Wraps, driven by Ian Anderson’s affection for spy novels. The record has been universally and justifiably condemned as Tull’s weakest album. Following that disaster, Tull went on a three-year hiatus due largely to Ian Anderson’s throat problems, and re-emerged in superb form with Crest of a Knave.

I would describe the period between Songs from the Wood and Crest of a Knave as a period dictated by Ian Anderson’s changing circumstances and ever-fluctuating interests. Ian buys a farm, we get Heavy Horses and Stormwatch. Ian falls in love with espionage tales and we get Under Wraps. This is also the period where we get Andersonian commentary on current events, most of which show how dated and upper-class he had become, especially in comparison to the contemporary working-class rage of The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

The Broadsword and the Beast has many features that clearly identify it as part of this meandering period in Tull history, especially the greater reliance on the synthesizer and the concern with socio-political trends. Where it differs is in the quality of the songs and the quality of the production. The Broadsword and the Beast is easily the strongest album of this period, especially from a musical perspective. There are a couple of spots where Ian Anderson’s lyrics set my teeth on edge, but generally these lyrics rank as some of his best. The album sounds better than its immediate predecessors, an improvement in recording quality directly attributable to the choice to have Paul Samwell-Smith produce the album, a choice that also provided the band with a detached perspective on the quality of the music. The Broadsword and the Beast has a satisfying, holistic feel, a record that successfully links the medieval with the modern from both a musical and thematic perspective.

Like Aqualung, The Broadsword and the Beast is divided into two roughly thematic sides: “Beastie” and “Broadsword.” That organization is driven more by the lead songs than the actual content, but the “Beastie” side deals more with the darker aspects of human nature. The “Broadsword” side is more diverse, less connected and a touch less satisfying. Overall, the theme coalesces around a central point: we may dis our medieval ancestors and their primitive ways, but while we may have better appliances and means of transport, we’re far short of claiming evolutionary superiority. The fears and instincts that drove our ancestors still live within us today.

“Beastie” deals with the fundamental fears that form the primary obstacle to our development as human beings. Once during a summer hiatus from college, my mother hooked me up with a New Age psychic who gave me a “reading” of my eternal soul that proved to be surprisingly accurate about my deepest fears (though I still think it was more of a lucky shot than astral wisdom). According to the psychic, and repeatedly reinforced by life experience, my two greatest fears are vulnerability and inadequacy. The beasts that come out when I’m immersed in those fears are arrogance (I can be a real castrating bitch) and self-deprecation (believe it or not, dominant little me can get seriously down on herself at times). I relate to “Beastie” in part because I have experienced my own beasts, and in part because Ian Anderson is 100% correct when he tells you what to do and what not to do when dealing with those nasty little suckers:

If you wear a warmer sporran, you can keep the foe at bay.
You can pop those pills and visit some psychiatrist who’ll say
There’s nothing I can do for you, everywhere’s a danger zone.
I’d love to help get rid of it, but I’ve got one of my own . . .

He’s the lonely fear of dying, and for some, of living too.
He’s your private nightmare pricking; he’d just love to turn the screw.
So stand as one defiant, yes, and let your voices swell:
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.

When I was going through a particularly challenging time with my beasties, I did go see a shrink. She was as useless as tits on a hog. She tried to sell me on drugs harder than any street pusher, and her “counseling” consisted of staring at me for fifty minutes while I jabbered away. No, what really works is what Miles Davis did when he finally kicked the heroin habit: lock yourself away and face those fears head on.

Musically, Tull is on top of their game here. The synthesizer sets a suitably ominous mood at the beginning, but as the song takes shape, the orchestral flavor of the synthesizer and the hard edge of Martin Barre’s always superb lead guitar are perfectly balanced. Ian Anderson’s vocal is confident, expressive and not at all preachy (as some reviewers have unfairly complained). “Beastie” is a fabulous, tone-setting opener of power and nuance.

According to the annotations on the Cup of Wonder site, Ian Anderson had this to say about “The Clasp”:

Ironically the handshake, when it is offered, is very often a forced gesture, far removed from its origin which was a way of demonstrating that you had no weapon in your hand and that you were offering your open hand to someone in peace.

I do shake hands quite a bit as part of my work, and I have to say I find the ritual awkward, annoying and superfluous, but business transactions have little to do with real human motivations and needs. My day is filled with “synthetic chiefs with frozen smiles holding unsteady courses.” “The Clasp” also deals with our isolation in the human community, how we pass thousands of people every day in the big city and ignore all those strangers instead of taking a risk now and then to break cultural barriers and discover new friends. Ian’s flute is the dominant feature here, giving “The Clasp” a pleasant sense of the familiar. The different filters applied to his voice oscillate between a sense of closeness and a feeling of distance, and are very effective in reinforcing the theme of essential human loneliness.

“Fallen on Hard Times” is Ian Anderson’s attempt to weigh in on the general mess in the U. K. that began in the 70’s and led to the ascension of the Iron Lady in a fearful overreaction by the voting public, similar to what brought Ronald Reagan to power in the USA. Compared to the scathing social criticism from the punk scene at the time, this is pretty milquetoast stuff that accepts the system as-is rather than what the punks did—identify the system as the fucking problem:

Oh, dear Prime Minister, it’s all such a mess.
Go right ahead and pull the rotten tooth.
Oh, Mr. President you’ve been put to the test.
Come clean, for once, and hit us with the truth

Pulling that rotten tooth à la Thatcher led to a great deal of suffering in the laboring classes while reducing taxes for wealthy landowners like Ian Anderson. Really, Ian should have kept his nose to the musical grindstone and let the politicians ruin themselves.

Ian does much, much better with poisonous personal relationships, as demonstrated by the outstanding piece, “Flying Colours.” By becoming a rock star, he had raised his status in society to the point where he was invited to various posh soireés. There he saw wealthy couples airing out their dirty laundry in public, oblivious to polite convention but very attentive to the need to establish evidence for the inevitable divorce proceedings. Sung in the first-person by the male half of the toxic relationship, the arrangement of mutual convenience and exploitation is exposed as the pathetic and primitive relationship it is:

Shout but you see it still won’t do.
With my colours on I can be just as bad as you.
Have I had a glass too much? Did I give a smile too few?
Did our friends all catch the needle match, did we want them to?
We act our parts so well, like we wrote the play.
All so predictable and we know it.
We’ll settle old scores now, and settle the hard way.
You may not even live to outgrow it.

Display of battle flags aside, “Flying Colours” is a musical delight. Opening over a background featuring the refreshing sound of a real piano played by Peter Vetesse, the song explodes into a Jethro Tull driver, full of those wonderful syncopations and bursts of Martin that knock you on your ass. Dave Pegg’s bass part is a work of art in itself, a combination of melodic counterpoint, bluesy moans and relentless drive at all the right moments. Ian plays his character with sensitivity to text and subtext, making this one of his best theatrical performances.

Demonstrating their tremendous musical versatility, Tull turns down the heat for one of their most beautiful songs, “Slow Marching Band.” Some fans have attempted to interpret this song as an apology for the departure of long-time members Barriemore Barlow, John Evan and David Palmer, but I think that’s a case of identifying too much with one’s heroes. This is clearly a song about the sadness experienced at the end of a relationship, when you know it’s time to separate despite the still-simmering remnants of feeling for the other person. Ian Anderson uses funereal imagery to mark the symbolic death of self-and-other; the experience is one of mourning for the relationship and for the now-separated individuals:

Dream of me as the nights draw cold
Still marking time through winter.
You paid the piper and called the tune
And you marched the band away.

Take a hand and take a bow.
You played for me; that’s all for now,
Oh, and never mind the words:
Just hum along and keep on going.

Walk on slowly don’t look behind you.
Don’t say goodbye, love. I won’t remind you.

Peter Vetesse’s piano is remarkably sensitive, tender in the reflective passages, imbued with finality in the passages of resolution. Gerry Conway’s contributions on drums are also worthy of mention, as he introduces splashes of syncopation and hints of funereal drum rolls while avoiding the impulse to take things too far and turn the song into a tedious military procession.

“Broadsword” opens side two, a historical piece where you imagine primitive Britons in animal skins watching with a combination of fear and determination as the Vikings, the Danes or the Normans show up in the green and pleasant land to rob and pillage. The human instinct to protect the family is prominent here, as is the human tendency to call on supernatural forces to pull our asses out of the fire (“Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.”) The rhythm reflects the drums of primitives, and the overall production is supportive of the story line. The song fails to grab me, probably because I find stories of battle tedious, but if you’re into that kind of thing, you will find that “Broadsword” is very well arranged and executed.

“Pussy Willow” is essentially a more detailed character description of the office worker described in Paul McCartney’s “Another Day.” This girl Friday has fantasies of being rescued from her humdrum existence by a medieval prince, who will shuffle her off to the mystical east. Sadly, she has to go to work to receive the inevitable cold splash of reality (“Runs from the train, hears her typewriter humming, cutting dreams down to size again.”) Musically divided into slower tempo sections for her fantasies and accelerated tempos for the morning commute, “Pussy Willow” is a fascinating composition. My only complaint has to do with the phrasing. While the pussy willow is a useful metaphor to contrast the lower middle class girl’s existence with those who live on the “fur-lined avenues” she passes on her way to work, it irritates the shit out of me that Ian Anderson had to manipulate the natural syllablization of the word “willow” to make it fit: pussy wilLOW. He could have avoided it by delaying the first syllable and turning the melody into a diminuendo.

I am so anal at times.

“Watching Me Watching You” feels like it belonged on A, not here. It’s too electronic and jerky and doesn’t fit the feel of the rest of the album. Ian Anderson said it was about “the dilemma of people in the public eye.” Yawn. If Ian Anderson didn’t want public attention, he could have pulled a Salinger and disappeared from view. As for “Seal Driver,” Ian claimed it was “deliberately ambiguous,” a clear attempt to hide the fact that the words are unintelligible and he didn’t have a clear grasp of his metaphors. Oddly enough, despite the meandering lyrics, this is one of the most memorable pieces on the album. The melody is lovely and the variations in rhythm are absolutely compelling. The Broadsword and the Beast comes to a fitting conclusion with the sentimental pub song, “Cheerio.” My only regret is that it doesn’t have more verses, because I think it would make a great replacement for the always tiresome “Auld Lang Syne” with the added bonus of not having to remember what the Scots title means when you’re three sheets to the wind.

As you can tell, I have a definite preference for the “Beastie” side of the coin, but I still think that The Broadsword and The Beast is one of Tull’s better efforts. I would have preferred to hear more Martin Barre on this and on all the albums of the synth-heavy period, but I always take comfort knowing that Crest of a Knave is just a couple of stops ahead and Martin will get another chance to let it rip.

7 responses

  1. Great to read a thoughtful review of Broadsword -music and lyrics. Surprised that you are dismissive of Heavy Horses -my favorite Tull album. Kudos for bringing attention to some of their more overlooked albums.

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    1. Funny you mention Heavy Horses—I was listening to Bursting Out the other day, and I rather like the songs from Heavy Horses when performed live. I think I’ll have to give it another go!

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  2. The remastered extended edition is well worth a listen. The bonus tracks Jack-A-Lynn, Mayhem Maybe, and the delightful Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow are easily as good as anything on the album, and also sound closer to the bands folk rock leanings than some of the album tracks.

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  3. Hi! Just enjoying reading through your Tull reviews. I’m a big Tull fan. Interesting take on Broadsword! It’s never been my favorite, but I’ve always popped it in the “not bad” category. I know this one is fairly beloved though by plenty of folks. Something always struck me as a little off about it. Like it was Tull “dumbed down” or something. I think it’s partially the stripped back, basic four on the floor of most of the the drumming after the virtuosic Barlow drumming of the past. There are a few tracks I really enjoy though.

    Ian was really churning out a prolific number of songs in this era. I’ve tracked down 24 including the 10 original Broadsword and I just through them all in a playlist to shuffle when I’m in the mood for this era of Tull. These are all the Nightcap tracks from that time + everything on the expanded bonus version of Broadsword. Anyway- good review, I think I’ll give it a spin. Did you ever revisit Heavy Horses? One of my all time favs…

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    1. whoops – *Threw* them in a playlist. Yikes that was a bad one.

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      1. I make those kinds of mistakes all the time!

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    2. It’s certainly not one of their top albums but has a certain energy to it that I like. I’ll probably get back to Tull someday, as I’d like to complete the discography from This Was through Crest of a Knave, but this year I’m trying to do more early 21st century stuff—the music from my generation. There’s only one problem, though: most of it sucks.

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