Review Summary: The album which made Jethro Tull an everyday name, and catapulted the band to the forefront of the early '70s progressive movement (at least for a while) with a number of complex and catchy tracks which are scattered about in a well-crafted arrangement.
I remember listening to this one while driving to school senior year, and then when I got there I was surprised to hear my favorite teacher – AP English Lit – obliquely reference it in a class discussion on religious themes. I felt proud at being able to follow his references on the subtle sampling of Bach on this album, which is used to enhance the religious themes of its latter half by giving an auditory connection to religious music past. And then, of course, there were my teacher’s references to the imagery of the lyrics, the “plastic crucifix,” the “half-assed smiles and the Book of Rules” of the clergy, and the image of God speaking to a boy in Sunday school, saying, “I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.” All of this provided for some discussion in class on whatever book or poem it was we were reading at the time, but it also made me further appreciate the complexities of Aqualung
and Jethro Tull as a band, as they are a truly versatile bunch.
This album is Jethro Tull’s most commercially known, with recognizable songs like ‘Cross-Eyed Mary,’ ‘Locomotive Breath,’ and of course the album’s title track ‘Aqualung’ about a mincing homeless man who eyes “little girls with bad intent,” eats discarded hot-dog ends, and warms his feet in bogs. ‘Cross-Eyed Mary’ presents the listener with the equally seedy story of an adolescent-aged girl who has taken to a career of ill repute, yet favors the lecherous older men as clients. It is an unusual decision the band has made, to present this eerie hodgepodge of character vignettes at the album's open, and while their purpose remains a bit of a mystery, they're still eminently catchy songs with wickedly barbed hooks. These are followed by a number of short, airy little tracks with more of an acoustic focus, and really they feel like filler in between the muscular rocking of the album's first two tracks and the weight of the album's second half, but really it can be forgiven as this period in which the album is in artistic limbo doesn't last overly long, as these tracks are fairly short (two of them don't even breach the 2 minute mark).
Yet, contrasting with the odd, yet morbidly entertaining characters that dominate the tracks on the first half of the album, is the much heavier imagery and unambiguous moralizing of the album’s second half which denounces organized religion as taking away from the basics of faith and a working, individual relationship with God. It’s an interesting theme for a ‘70s era prog rock band to attempt in merely five tracks (the album’s second side on vinyl), and it’s clear that much of the slowly boiling ire evident in these songs is leveled in the direction of the Church of England or perhaps major Christian religions in general, yet attempts to remain in favor of a more personal understanding of faith. It’s a lofty goal to aim for, and Anderson does it well, even if he seems to venture occasionally into a place where the music comes off as not only against the organized Christianity he was familiar with, but also, perhaps, the concept of God at all. But, overall, this theme feels more suited for Victorian-era English literature than a progressive rock album, and the execution on the album’s second half feels more than a little dated at times and melodramatic at others thanks to the overly-impassioned vocals of Anderson on tracks such as ‘Wind Up.’
Yet, despite the slight faults in the vocals and the goal of the lyrics, they are easily redeemed by the significant skill exhibited through the adeptly varied and immensely iconic instrumentation on Aqualung
. The title track alone has a number of very distinct structures: bursting in with a heavy, unaccompanied guitar riff in its opening moments which is then garnished with the stressed sputter of Ian Anderson’s vocals and a bit of roaming drumming on the toms, then shifting abruptly into a slower tempo acoustic rejoinder part way through, finally pulsing through into a more ecstatically rocking tempo complete with an air-guitar-worthy solo, and then moving quickly backward through these structural forms to reach the song’s conclusion (complicated, no?). As mentioned before, ‘Locomotive Breath’ begins with Bach on piano, but transfers into a steady tempo of guitar and drums to emulate the sound of a chugging train engine, and comes to an inventive and captivating climax with a … flute solo. Yes, flute. Ian Anderson was known not only as the writer and lead vocalist of most of the band’s music, but for his uncanny ability to transfer directly from singing into performing breath-taking (pun intended) flute parts, all while hopping about on one leg when performing on stage, like an over-exuberant, '70s rock minstrel. The listener’s first experience with this flute work is in the airy opening moments of ‘Cross-Eyed Mary,’ but it remains ever-present on many tracks, from the primarily acoustic ‘Cheap Day Return’ or ‘Up to Me,’ to more complex songs with appropriately more complex flute sections such as ‘My God.’ Although these fluttering flute solos sometimes overreach, going beyond rhythmic necessity into something a bit like pomp (conjuring up appropriate images of Will Ferrell’s character in Anchorman
), it still brings a very unique aspect to the balance of the album and leaves the listener with a largely positive impression of its usage.
is a well-arranged album with a few bright-shining flecks of compositional genius, despite some of its more mundane tracks with their overly theatrical vocals, yet its impact has largely been lost to time as its message would have resonated far more with the youth of the ‘70s, who still understood the shared generational experience of Sunday School. Today the images of corporeal punishment, school accoutrement that still included the Bible, and the dogmatic misunderstanding of faith by hypocritical clergy, all of which this album elicits, fall fairly flat, in much the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that The Exorcist
no longer has the ability to instill the same sort of terror in members of Generation X as it did with the Baby Boomers. It may not be a truly timeless work, but it remains an important one in the history of rock and ironically helped me to shift my tastes to the concept album. I say “ironically” because Ian Anderson vehemently claims this is not a concept album, and takes exception to that label being placed on Aqualung
. In fact, he disliked the label so much that he went on to create the band’s next album, Thick as a Brick
, as a work that mocked the concept album as a musical form by, unusually enough, using the form in a superb manner. Go figure.