Album of the Week, November 18: Aqualung by Jethro Tull

Singer Ian Anderson spent most of the 60s is an ever-changing lineup of bands playing blue-eyed soul and British blues. By 1968, the band Jethro Tull had coalesced around Anderson — who had taken up the flute by this point — and guitarist Mick Abrahams. They released one album before tension between the two forced Abrahams out. His replacement, Martin Barre, has been with the band ever since and is second only to Anderson in the trademark sound of the band. Three years and a bit more lineup change later, the band released their fourth album. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (bass) and John Evan (keyboards) had performed with Anderson before, and the chemistry was just right. Variously labelled a pioneering concept album and one of the first fully formed progressive rock albums, Aqualung was unquestionably a masterpiece.

Title Aqualung
Act Jethro Tull
Label Chrysalis Release Date  3/19/1971
Producer Ian Anderson and Terry Ellis
U.S. Chart  #7 U.K. Chart  #4
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Aqualung
  2. Cross-Eyed Mary
  3. Cheap Day Return
  4. Mother Goose
  5. Wond’ring Aloud
  6. Up to Me
  7. My God
  8. Hymn 43 [#91]
  9. Slipstream
  10. Locomotive Breath
  11. Wind-Up

The band resist the “concept album” label, with Anderson strenuously asserting that Aqualung is “just a collection of songs.” Regardless of their intent, the eleven tracks are so consistent and cohesive — both musically and lyrically — that its easy to consider it a meditation on faith, both its strengths and shortcomings. Side one of the original disc was also labelled “Aqualung” — contrasting with side two’s “My God” — creating yet another lens through which to view the content. However one chooses to approach it, the blues-rock foundation, folky enhancements, sharp lyrics, and masterful musicianship make this a powerful listen.

The cover portrait and title character came from a series of photos that Anderson’s wife, Jennie, took of the homeless along the Thames embankment. While the impetus to name the character “Aqualung” is lost to time, the powerful ode to the disenfranchised serves as a perfect kickoff to the album. Barre turns in some of his finest work throughout the album, and his solo on the title track is frequently mentioned on best-of lists. From this solid launch, the album moves into similar territory with Cross-Eyed Mary, a musically solid but less interesting look at the corruption of innocence.

While the craftsmanship is solid and unified throughout the album, there are three distinct types of songs on Aqualung. The third track, Cheap Day Return, is one of three short acoustic bridges. Each features a quiet vocal and lovely acoustic guitar by Anderson with minimal accompaniment. Each is a snapshot of a personal moment, injecting intimate moments into the larger themes. Cheap Day Return reflects on a visit to Anderson’s terminally ill father. Track 5, Wond’ring Aloud, is a beautiful meditation on sharing oneself with another person, filled with homey images. The final bridge song, Slipstream, appears at track 9 and provides a moment of surrender to larger forces before the rocking close to the album.

Aqualung also introduces a strong folk-rock element that would become a staple of Tull albums in the 70s. Tracks 4 and 6 — Mother Goose and Up To Me respectively — clearly belong to this category. Both also engage in a witty wordplay that had been hinted at previously but truly blossoms here. Mother Goose uses many traditional English idioms to explore youth, growth, and secrets, captured in the singer’s engagement with the title character. Up To Me picks up the wonderful wordplay, with Anderson exploring various forms of relationships as he works through every possible permutation of the title line.

The balance of the album are blues-based rockers, showing off the band’s chops to great effect. The two opening tracks clearly fit in this mold before ceding the album to softer instrumentation until side two. That side kicks off with its title track, My God, one of three that clearly show a disillusionment with organized religion and a yearning for meaningful faith. In just over seven minutes it gives all five band members a chance to show their stuff and shake things loose. Hymn 43 is far more pointed, dissecting religion in a biting three minutes anchored by the chorus of “If Jesus saves, He’d better save himself.” This was the album’s only single, edging into the Hot 100 for two weeks.

After sliding into Slipstream, the album rocks out for its closing tracks. The final song, Wind-Up, is the third analysis of religion and faith and works well to wrap up the disc on a thoughtful, consistent note. Just before that close, however, Aqualung hits its real high point. Locomotive Breath is one of the bands finest songs, a driving rocker with a stunning vocal and perfect contributions by each band member. Whichever lens one chooses to use for the album, Locomotive Breath works. It’s a tale of powerlessness and betrayal — by friends, lovers, and God — and uses the potentially dangerous train metaphor to one of its best effects ever.

After Aqualung, Clive Bunker quit the band, replaced by longtime Anderson associate Barrie Barlow. With arranger David Palmer coming aboard as an official member (keyboards) and one change in bass player in 1976, Tull had its most stable lineup and most consistently creative period through the 70s. Anderson and Barre still record and perform, hanging on to the legacy of a brilliant album and a quirky but powerful contribution to rock.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the band’s many personnel and stylistic changes over the years, this devolves a bit into “How do you like your Tull?” Anderson’s clever lyricism, racy wit, strong voice, and creative flute playing are constants as is Barre’s stellar guitar work. From there, your mileage may vary. A few albums are standouts, however.

Benefit, the album preceding Aqualung, is a stunning transitional album. Anderson’s flute and acoustic guitar come into their own and blend potently with Barre’s amazing electric lead guitar. Tull slowly emerges from their blues roots and find their own sound in a strong set of songs. Thick As A Brick is an album-long song, a complex, challenging, often frustrating meditation on life. Anderson crafted it out of his irritation at the critics who called Aqualung a concept album. It’s an interesting experiment and very well performed but not one of my favorites. It was their best-selling, however, and rivals Aqualung on the best-of lists. Minstrel In the Gallery is the closest to Aqualung in terms of cohesiveness and consistency. Recorded in 1975 with the classic Tull lineup, it is the best showcase of the band’s Elizabethan pretensions and a solid mix of rockers and folky songs. From there the band went a bit more pastoral for a while, and the strongest showing on that front is Songs From the Wood, a wonderful blending of folk imagery and diverse rock settings.  Heavy Horses, a solid set of songs about the decline of agriculture is nearly as good.

Many compilation albums are out there as well, covering solid material and mostly missing some of the filler that shows up on the original albums. Of these, the best are 1976’s M.U., which sadly misses four solid albums, and 1993’s two-disc Anniversary Collection, which is a great overview even if it has a bit too much from the less interesting 80s work.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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