Sunday, May 6, 2012

Jethro Tull - Aqualung (1971)

(This review originally appeared in June 2004.)

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that, I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first - rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but His disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me." - John Lennon, 1966
Rock and roll has long had a kinship with religion in general and Christianity in particular. After all, Elvis learned about music through the church, and Ray Charles practically begat soul music by himself by bringing gospel influences to the blues. Unlike their American cousins, who are rooted strongly in faith, the British have always had an uneasy relationship with the Christian church - understandable, given the solemn, stodgy traditions of the Church of England. So it's not surprising that British youth culture initiated an interest in Eastern faiths, and it was even more unsurprising that a British rock musician would be the first rocker to question all forms of organized religion through the microcosmic prism of Anglicanism on record. What was surprising was that the Brit rocker in question was not John Lennon but Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson. Lennon may have questioned organized religion in his interviews (the above quote was what caused the Beatles so much trouble in the U.S. on their final tour), but no rocker had dared to devote a great deal of space on an album to the question until Anderson and his group rose to the challenge.
By 1971, Jethro Tull had put out three solid rock records that drew from progressive rock, the blues, and English folk and was quickly becoming one of England's most respected bands. The group was taking a big risk, though, in exploring religion when it began recording the fourth Tull album. The LP that resulted, Aqualung, nonetheless was received favorably and became an enormous commercial success - with good reason. Anderson's talents for biting music and allegorical lyrics came to fruition here as he and his band explored the hypocrisies of the Church of England through modern parables, impressionistic vignettes of life, and outright anger.
Aqualung was divided into two parts.  Side one of the original vinyl LP is comprised of songs about a ridiculed homeless man (called Aqualung by onlookers for an asthmatic breathing pattern that sounds like scuba gear) who is unable to get succor or relief from his hopelessness, along with some irreverent morality-play sketches of early-seventies London as Anderson experienced it.  Side two contains songs pouring derision on church leaders who twist Jesus's teachings. Aqualung is introduced to us in an intense, heavy title song as an unsentimentalized vagrant who wanders through an English town and occasionally gets support  from more sympathetic onlookers. He is a dirty, vulgar fellow who is let down by the social system that's supposed to save him. Songs like "Cross-Eyed Mary" (about a schoolgirl prostitute who donates unsavory favors to the poor men of Hempstead) and "Mother Goose" paint a stark picture of the values of the English upper classes, and guitarist Martin Barre's heavy electric riffs add to the malice of Anderson's visions. Anderson's own voice snarls with contempt while alternating with compassion for Aqualung, despite his more dubious qualities (like ogling young girls) - he's concerned with the fates visited on the poor through lack of interest in their well-being.
On side two, Anderson displays a church so out of touch with such realities and their lack of will to dispense Christian charity - the rather graphic "Hymn 43" hits hard at preachers who use Jesus's name for their more earthly interests, and "Locomotive Breath" offers a nasty epitaph for those left behind. Critics of Jethro Tull found Anderson's attack on organized religion too petulant and too limited by going against one church, but they miss the point about how Aqualung is about all organized religions, and all hypocrites who deny charity to others while dispensing the promise of salvation so miserly.
Interestingly, Anderson and his bandmates weren't really thrilled with how Aqualung turned out, and Anderson himself has denied the record was ever intended to be a concept album - it was only supposed to be a record of songs revolving around what happened to be on his mind at the time.  (The third track, "Cheap Day Return" - the title refers to a discount return-trip ticket on the London Underground - was about Anderson returning from a visit to his critically ill father, addressing himself in the second person.)  To be fair, there are weak moments here - notably the closing song, "Wind Up," which tries to sum up some of Anderson's ideas about religion without saying much.  However, its commercial success encouraged them to improve their music and explore other ideas. Aqualung was the album that made Jethro Tull a more driven, more ambitious band than it had been before - and its audacity made Ian Anderson a rock legend.

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