Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Passion Play - Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull, hot on the heels of Thick as a Brick, quickly realized that true success in the industry meant breaking into the American market. While both Aqualung and Thick as a Brick were reasonably successful in the U.S., Tull was only just beginning to appear on the new FM AOR format. Living in the Past was a windfall idea and considered by many to be the first compilation LP. Rather than a greatest hits album, Living in the Past was a collection of songs from the early LPs, several popular U.K. singles and the No. 1 American title hit, still Tull's most successful venture into the pop radio airwaves. For a naïve ten-year old, my assumption was that this was an incredibly rich new LP, (the first that I heard from Tull), and led me to Thick as a Brick and then to A Passion Play, discovering Aqualung at a much later date. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album each year, none of them less than very good, a handful of them great, and three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band's hall of fame coronation (still waiting).

Interestingly, Jethro Tull's "Holy Trinity" was recorded the same years as Yes's (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge) and those from Genesis (Trespass, Nursery Cryme and Selling England by the Pound). Small wonder the early seventies are considered by many as the ultimate rock years. While England was immersed in the progressive sound that included Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP, ELO, Tull et al, there was also the harder edged Zeppelin, The Who and Deep Purple, even Black Sabbath, that brought the blues to a new generation and paved the way for heavy metal. There was the art rock of Bowie, Sparks and King Crimson and across the Atlantic Lou Reed and Patti Smith vying for the attention of a nation that had so fully embraced the West Coast sound of Joni Mitchell, Jackson Brown and The Eagles. The diversity is inarguable; the state of rock music at an all-time high. I understand that this paltry list omits so many greats, from Clapton to Rod Stewart to Jeff Beck, but I cannot list them all – these just came to mind.

And so, Tull's aforementioned Holy Trinity skips Living in the Past in that there was little in the way of new material, and while many would disagree with my inclusion of A Passion Play as among Jethro Tull's finest offerings, it conversely completes a trilogy that began with Aqualung. Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listen, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don't have the ears or hearts (or the time) for this material, as it represents much of Anderson's finest work. His voice never sounded better, and he was at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It's a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one's perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work. 

The album's concept, designed as a stage performance, is centred on the death and afterlife of a guy called Ronnie. It's complexities are interrupted smack in the middle by a story, "The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles." Should one imagine imagine the story as a stage play, this short nonsensical Alice-like tome was meant as a break for the audience to recover a bit from the quite serious topic of the main story. The artistic performance of all band members is stunning here and the LP offers some of the best sections they've ever done during the lengthy Tull career. Of coursem, Rolling Stone hated it, though, for this writer, A Passion Play fits succinctly into the Tull masterworks trilogy.

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