06 May 2003

A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull

At last! Finally my favourite Jethro Tull album has been re-mastered and re-issued! This may seem unworthy of comment, but, having released the ‘classic’ Tull albums of Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) some time ago, EMI recently set about re-issuing all the Tull albums starting with the first album This Was (1968), followed by the second album Stand Up (1969) and the third album Benefit (1970). Then for some reason they leapfrogged A Passion Play and released the next three albums, War Child (1974), Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) and Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die (1976). I was beginning to despair. Then last weekend I found it, re-issued out of sequence with Songs From The Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I still don’t see the logic of this, but at least the CD (and naturally the other two) has finally made its way into my record collection.

My relationship to Jethro Tull’s music has been complex. They have passed through so many styles and phases during their career that I have found myself liking different records or series of records at different times. This is to some extent natural for anyone who listens to a lot of music, but Tull seem to have experimented with directions more than most and I’ve found myself growing into their various developments. I began with the late 80's rock phase of Crest Of A Knave (1987), for which Tull somewhat farcically won a Heavy Metal award (over Metallica!), and Rock Island (1989). Then progressed backwards to the greatest hits of the early 70’s. Then rocketed forward to the early 80’s electronics of The Broadsword And The Beast (1982). Then backward again to the late '70s folk-based albums. The two albums I would not part with now are are A Passion Play and Minstrel In The Gallery. The point is really that at each time I thought I knew Tull and knew what I liked, only to rediscover them again later (A Passion Play became a foil for my increasingly electronic-dance orientated musical tastes), so I’ve been spared the nostalgia of ‘I used to listen to this’ but have instead found that Tull have remained relevant to my musical environment, from the beginning on, in a way that no other band have.

A Passion Play is the most complicated album Tull recorded, and, following Thick As A Brick, the second and last album to be 45 minutes of continuous music. And 45 minutes it is, rather than two sections of 23-ish minutes. In that comment lies my first criticism of every CD release. On both Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, there is a sense of trying to overcome the physical constraints of the medium of a vinyl record. The end of the first side of Thick As A Brick fades out and the second side fades in from the same point. On A Passion Play there is an interval song, 'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles', and the bridge occurs in the middle of the story, during a natural pause after the main characters have been introduced. In fact the album anticipates the CD medium with its single side, and it was not until being issued on CD that this endeavour was truly fulfilled. However, every CD I’ve seen begins the second part of the album from the beginning of 'The Story…' . It would be more appropriate to begin from the middle, as the vinyl did, or to dispense with such divisions altogether, in acknowledgement of what the album was trying to do.

'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles' is an oddity amongst Jethro Tull songs in that it is narrated, and indeed not even by Ian Anderson, but by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Musically it is a psychedelic mutation of Peter And The Wolf filtered through Winnie-The-Pooh and only flirts with what we would recognise as Rock in the last few bars. But the words are the key for me: the punning makes you cringe in delight. On the newly re-mastered release, we are treated to a 7-minute promotional video of 'The Story…', complete with ballerinas, the dancing of oversized animals and frantic editing. As you watch this or listen to the music, it’s worth bearing in mind that only two years previously Tull had been bracketed in much the same category as Led Zeppelin, and yet this is about as far from Heavy Metal or Hard Rock as it’s possible to get.

The words and lyrical plays are part of what makes the album so impressive. Perhaps the best line is on the second side: 'I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had'. Overall, the album is about death and possibly life afterwards, beginning as it does with a funeral. Yet, 30 years after its original release, it is not only the lyrics which make the album rewarding. Released in the same year as the ‘definitive’ concept album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, A Passion Play is for me the better recording, and a major part of the reason is the music. A Passion Play is more unified musically than The Dark Side Of The Moon; the latter is really just songs which cross-fade, whereas the former has an ‘approach’ and a sense of continuous development. The music often is among Jethro Tull's most playfully eccentric, flowing in and out of seeming incoherence. The opening instrumental, for example, has an inverted 'Teddy-bear's Picnic' quality (which reminds me of the truly disturbing start of Faust’s eponymous 1971 album) before turning to the apparent gravity of funeral described in the lyrics. Regular song structures are rare, while repeated motifs tie the various sections together. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar in there, but there’s also a lot of jazz-based rhythm and extreme contrasts of electric to acoustic and wild to ethereal.

The strange thing is that this album marked the turn of critical acclaim for Tull. The critics hated it, and for some reason have never recovered. Maybe part of the problem was that Ian Anderson seemed to resent being put into a category. Or maybe that he gave the impression of not caring whether they liked him and his music or not. Maybe the swing between introspective albums (A Passion Play and Minstrel…) and extroverted albums (War Child and Too Old…) meant that Tull were hard to get a grip on. And maybe it was simply a bandwagon that everyone got onto, and a guy playing a flute whilst standing on one leg is an easy target. But whatever the reason, Jethro Tull remain unpopular amongst critics and are for some reason considered to highlight the excesses of the 1970’s prog-rock scene, even though their music has dated better than much of Pink Floyd’s, never had the classical bombast of Yes, ELO or even Deep Purple, and Martin Barre’s guitar playing never degenerated into widdling and 40-minute solos.

And if you want more, then the 1993 compilation Nightcap is essential. The double CD set contains the original session for A Passion Play, recorded in France and labelled under The Chateaux D'Isater Tapes. Although much of the material was simply abandoned, some of the pieces, especially instrumentals, crop up again on A Passion Play, sometimes with alternative lyrics. For the full 'Passion Play Sessions', of course, you need to have War Child too, since 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day' and 'Bungle In The Jungle' were also recorded at the ‘Chateaux D'Isaster', along with Solitaire, which appears in its original form on Nightcap. The compilation makes it easier to tie up various threads in this period of Anderson's writing, as for example with the animal metaphors and 'Law Of The Bungle'.

All in all, a work of eccentric genius, in my opinion, closer to avant-garde than Rock. The critical headlines of 'Play without Passion' could not be further from the truth. Certainly a difficult album to listen to, but well worth the effort of trying. Still vibrant and inspiring 30 years after the original release.

No comments:

Post a Comment