Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jethro Tull - Aqualung (1971)

Aqualung is one of those quintessential classic rock albums, and it's actually surprising that it's taken me this long to own it. But Jethro Tull has always been the sort of band that's hard to pin down, and while I appreciate their frequently hard rocking edge, the inclusion of Ian Anderson's flute gives their music a poetic, almost folksy flavor. So Aqualung fell through the cracks in my music collection, and the longer I went without owning it, the stranger I felt about going back and picking it up. I recently changed my mind because I sat down to learn how to play the title track on guitar, and I figured it was a good time to finally get my hands on the album.

I remember borrowing the album from my dad's collection several years ago, and listening to it then, in its entirety. Of course the songs Aqualung (with a kick-ass riff and a truly epic guitar solo) and Locomotive Breath (which features a plodding rhythm and the meanest flute solo I've ever heard in a rock song), and to a lesser extent Cross-Eyed Mary, registered in my mind as they were songs I'd heard, and enjoyed, on rock radio. But my most novel discovery was the song Wind Up, which closes the album, and covers one of the main themes of the album - the distinction between God and religion, as it's been described - a theme I can absolutely relate to.

"I don't believe you, you have the whole damn thing all wrong:
He's not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays."

The band vehemently denies (almost too strongly) that Aqualung is a "concept album", but even if it was not intended as such, it certainly works well as one, after the fact. The second half of the album focuses on the religion topic, with several songs that attack the hypocrisy of organized religion, such as the vitriolic My God, and the haunting Wind Up. The first half of the album is a collection of songs which could easily be mistaken as a series of character sketches, that has probably done just as much to encourage the rumor that Aqualung is a concept album as the cohesion of theme on the second half. The album opens with the title track, which describes the titular character that is depicted on the cover - a "letching grey", a perverted and homeless old man, in dubious health. He even makes a cameo in the next song, Cross-Eyed Mary (who is a schoolgirl prostitute), in almost rock opera fashion.

So you see, confusing Aqualung for a concept album is an easy thing to do. However, learning that it's not intended to be one - or a rock opera either, for that matter - was actually a relief, because I was having a hard time tying together the themes and understanding what Aqualung, the character at the beginning of the album, had to do with the anti-religious sentiment that invades the second half of the album. My resulting impression is that, as far as quintessential classic rock albums go, Aqualung isn't on the level of Led Zeppelin IV or Dark Side of the Moon or what have you, but then, I wouldn't rate Jethro Tull on quite the same level as Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Still, they were a unique band with a hard-to-duplicate sound, that put out some good songs (not all of which have found radio popularity), many of which can be found on this album.

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