by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor
Aqualung (1971) is Jethro Tull’s best-received record, famous not just for its music but its truly terrifying album cover: that man’s face is utter horror contained in one picture. There are countless stories of children stumbling onto the album cover in their parents’ collections and being hopelessly traumatized.
The album cover is terrifying. How is the music?
Jethro Tull, flute aside, rock a little harder than Genesis. One of their calling cards has always been pounding, pulsating drum beats like the one we hear opening the opulent second track on the album, “Cross-Eyed Mary”. Jethro Tull are a little bit like Deep Purple with flutes, they mix the pretentious of the genre with as much cock-rock swagger as they can manage when, again, they have a dedicated flautist. They managed to tour with both Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin! With a dedicated flautist.
I’m getting away from my point here. Jethro Tull, somehow, still works for me. Aqualung is a hell of an album, and maybe one of the most successful attempts at a coherent concept album from this period. I expected the flutes and the troubadour acoustic guitar stuff mixed with the harder rock edges of the band would make the whole thing feel maudlin and, well, “progressive”, but it fits well.
If anything, Jethro Tull’s influence can be seen in genre-bending acts like Sufjan Stevens and Owen Pallett today. Lead singer Ian Anderson’s indomitable voice is one of the genre’s best, and Anderson’s songwriting abilities showed a strong progression from 1969’s uneven Stand Up.
So, with one of 70s rock classic albums under their belt, where did Jethro Tull go from here? 1972 heralded the band’s move from riff-rock and folk inspired songs to pure, undiluted 70s progressive rock cheese with the excessive Thick as a Brick.
Thick as a Brick was conceived as a parody of rock operas, but as The AV Club’s Noel Murray posited in a 2012 retrospective, many listeners “missed the joke”. And with bands like Yes and ELP seeming like monstrous self-parody anyway, it’s not hard to see how “Thick as a Brick” could be construed as a fully serious entry into the genre.
The playfulness is apparent when listening to the record, even if the larger parody may get lost under a cavalcade of competing instruments and impossibly long songs. The grimy, hard rock lyrics of Aqualung morph into oblique, charming diversions on the two sides of the album.
Oh, and did I mention the album is one long song, split over two sides?
Welcome to progressive rock, baby. We’re in it now!
Aqualung was, and remains, my favorite record by Jethro Tull. Even as I poured over the virtuosic musings of King Crimson and Yes in my adolescence, I never quite found the plot with Thick as a Brick. Its harsh, mocking edges make it a difficult entry point to the band, while Aqualung is closer to a Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple sensibility, with its stadium-rock accessibility and blues background.
What’s next? Looks like it’s time for the dark masters of the format, King Crimson.