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.
Ian Anderson seems to get his knickers in a twist whenever someone refers to Aqualung as a concept album. After reading various comments he’s made over the years, I think what he’s talking about is intention; while Aqualung clearly has themes that weave together into a remarkable tapestry, those themes came together by good fortune rather than deliberate intent.
Concept album or not, Aqualung is one of the great albums of all-time, a work of unusual depth, power and intensity. The lyrics are clearer and stronger than on any other Tull album, and the musicianship of Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan and Clive Bunker is simply extraordinary.
Yes, I specifically left out Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, one of the most inept bass players in history. Fortunately, they kept the bass parts on Aqualung limited to simple rhythm support so the others could strut their stuff.
The two main themes of Aqualung are the human condition (side one) and religion (side two). Side one is a series of portraits: two of people in the human underworld; one of Ian Anderson waiting for a train and musing on a visit to his father in the hospital; another of people seen on a stroll through Hampstead Heath; one a scene in the daily life of a couple; and the other of a working class lout. It is the method (portraiture) that provides the unity, as opposed to any common theme or message.
The religious theme—or, more accurately, the corruption of religion theme—on side two is clearly intentional. The unification of the two sides is arrived by inferential logic (How can a God allow people like Aqualung and Cross-Eyed Mary to live such miserable existences?) or implied (the line, “We are our own saviors” in “Wond’ring Aloud”).
The opening portrait, “Aqualung,” is unapologetically graphic, searing into the consciousness:
Sitting on a park bench
Eying little girls
With bad intent.
Snot running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run.
Feeling like a dead duck
Spitting out pieces of his broken luck.
These lyrics are backed up by exceptionally strong, no-bullshit power from the band. The intensity abruptly turns into a quiet acoustic segment with Ian Anderson’s voice moving back in the sound field through heavy reverberation that distances the narrator from the experience of watching Aqualung’s rituals of survival. John Evan’s piano enters the fray and provides a marvelous transition to a new segment of intense urgency. One of the everlasting strengths of “Aqualung” lies in these rhythmic and dynamic shifts within the arrangement that constantly keep the listener immersed in the experience. The fourth segment is Martin Barre’s brilliant solo, a piece that has such a strong counter-melody that I’ve often found myself humming the notes when the song slips into consciousness. Segment five is another quiet acoustic piece that arrives in shocking contrast to Martin’s six-string explosion. The song wraps up with a return to the first verse, an ironically triumphant conclusion indeed. The triumph is in the exceptional structure that makes the repetition of the first verse a fitting conclusion to this incredible song.
Tull albums are usually pretty high on the intensity scale, and Aqualung is the most consistently intense of all. After the powerful opening number, there’s absolutely no let-up when we move to “Cross-Eyed Mary.” Another exceptionally well-arranged song, the band frigging rocks here: Ian’s flute is enthusiastic, John Evan adds some fabulous touches, Martin does his usual thing and Clive Bunker delivers a super performance on the skins. The intro, nearly a minute long, transitions beautifully with an emphatic trill from the flute. Like “Aqualung,” the song deals with the underclass (a schoolgirl hooker), with appropriately graphic and earthy language.
“Cheap Day Return” is a short vignette of Ian waiting for a train to visit his father in the hospital. The oscillation here is between musing on the mundane (“Brush away the cigarette ash that’s falling down your pants”) and the anxiety-provoking (“And you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man the way she sh-should?”) Ian Anderson’s use of a third-person narrative makes this little song a powerful bit of poetry; had he written it in first-person, the perspective might have been far too contaminated by emotion.
“Mother Goose” is a precursor to the “heavy wood” sound that Tull would move to in later years, a semi-surrealistic stroll through a city park full of strong imagery and clever lines. “Wond’ring Aloud” is a lovely reflection on closeness; the more romantically ideal passages that open the song are made even stronger by the all-too human act of spilling toast crumbs on the bed where the couple had been locked in sweet embrace moments before. Side one ends with the drunken British machismo of “Up to Me,” a song where the narrator blindly looks for some excuse to kick someone’s ass in order to maintain some sense of comparative worth.
The religion side, entitled “My God” in sync with the opening number, deals primarily with how organized religion has destroyed the human connection to God (or spirituality, if you prefer), in complete reversal of its alleged intention. The emphasis is on exposing the absurd hypocrisy that always accompanies organized religion, and as an exposé, it’s a smashing success.
I actually heard a live version of the song “My God” years ago on a crappy bootleg version of one of their concerts that must have taken place after Benefit but before Aqualung. The device the idiot used to make the illegal recording must have been malfunctioning, because it sounded like a 45 played at 33 1/3 with Ian’s vocals sounding like drunken mud. Regardless, I still vividly remember two things about the song. One was the line “and the graven image you-know-who” was sung “and the graven image Catholic.” I’m glad Ian decided to change it. The other was the first verse, as memorable a piece of songwriting as there ever was:
People what have you done?
Locked him in his golden cage,
Made him bend to your religion,
Him resurrected from the grave.
He is the God of nothing if that’s all that you can see.
You are the God of everything: he’s inside you and me.
As a young teen at the time, this validated what I’d always thought about organized religion and made me a committed Tull fan for life.
“Hymn 43” is a kick ass rocker that somehow turned into the one single off the album (it’s hard to imagine this put-down of the absurdity of religious zealots on American Top 40 radio). The killer line, “If Jesus saves, well, he better save himself” rings true every time I listen to Republican office-seekers testify about their faith. “Slipstream” is another lovely small song a la “Cheap Day Return,” dealing with the odd pairing of Christianity and wealth, something that makes as much sense as a camel fitting through the eye of a needle.
Certainly the piéce de resistance of the album is “Locomotive Breath,” an extraordinary song about man being ripped from the crutch of faith by modern progress and science. The locomotive was the symbol of destructive progress in Victorian England, and it was during that time that “Old Charlie” (Darwin) “stole the handle” with his theory of evolution. At least that’s my interpretation; you’re free to have your own.
The song would have been memorable if it had been recorded simply with Ian Anderson on acoustic guitar, but what makes it a masterpiece is the amazing arrangement. The opening passage is pure genius. It begins with John Evan playing a romantic-classical passage that slowly transforms into Gershwinesque jazz . . . at which point we hear Martin’s electric guitar play a soft and highly seductive riff. The two threads (one of innocence, one of experience, in Blakean terms) then play together for a short while until the raw, modern, destructive sound of distorted electric guitar simply overwhelms the natural sound of the piano. The passage serves as a mini-version of the song’s narrative: simple man destroyed by something he can neither explain nor deny.
The song then explodes into the driving, syncopated rhythm of the main passage, an intensely exciting piece of music accentuated by Martin’s moves between cut and scream and Clive Bunker’s tight drumming. Of all the songs in my library, “Locomotive Breath” is the one I find myself playing back-to-back most often. I listen to it in sheer amazement every time, then I want to go back and try to pick up the endless subtleties that make it a great piece of music.
“Locomotive Breath” would be difficult to follow in any case, but Tull hit a grand slam with “Wind-Up.” This story of religious indoctrination in the school system is exquisitely sung, beautifully arranged and gives us enough Martin Barre to satisfy what by now has become an addictive craving. Ian Anderson sings the song with the perfect combination of puckish humor in the quiet passages and deep disgust in the up-tempo middle, where my favorite lines reside:
How d’ya dare to tell me that I’m my father’s son, when that was just an accident at birth?
I’d rather look around me, compose a better song, ‘cause that’s an honest measure of my worth,
In your pomp and all your glory, you’re a poorer man than me
As you lick the boots of death, born out of fear.
As we fade out on the plaintive line, “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays,” we have to take a long breath and reflect on the entire experience of Aqualung. We’ve taken a deep dive into ugly human reality and the equally ugly hypocrisy of organized religion. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve reflected. Despite the enormity of the problems Ian Anderson has described, we feel good at the end of the experience, as we do with all art that manages to cut through the much to reveal simple truths. Aqualung ends in hope, not despair, and hope makes us feel good.
And we also feel good because on Aqualung, more than on any of their other albums, Tull kicks fucking ass!