Aqualung: Even Better Than You Thought It Was
Whatever one’s feelings about progressive rock, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is a rare album that remains at once part of, and above, the fray. It is, to be certain, a cornerstone of the then-nascent prog-rock canon, but it did—and does—exist wholly on its own terms as a great rock album, period.
One of the many reasons prog-rock is controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.
Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough units to be considered a significant act in its own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a unique entity in rock music.
More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.
By 1971, Anderson had dealt with the past (Stand Up) and the present (Benefit); his burgeoning confidence would prompt him to combine those elements in an attempt to grind some axes that probed quite a bit deeper than the typical sociopolitical commentary on offer (then, now). For Tull’s first proper “concept album” (despite Anderson’s ongoing protestations regarding this label), the songwriter turns a lacerating eye on the institution of organized religion. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely—if ever—been improved upon by other mainstream acts.
Everyone knows the epic title track (forever and somewhat unfortunately associated with the iconic cover art, which renders the eponymous tramp into a caricature of Ian Anderson who, not a little ironically, casual fans thought—and think?—is Jethro Tull), and then there is the concert anthem “Locomotive Breath” as well as the ones you used to hear on the radio when we used to listen to the radio, “Hymn 43” and “Cross-Eyed Mary”. Four decades on, it happens to be the lesser known tracks that represent the key to the work’s endurance. If you only know the “hits” you are selling the album, and yourself, more than a little short. In between the heavy, huge classic tracks are quiet pieces that, while softer, pack their own subtle punch. The acoustic couplet of “Cheap Day Return” and “Wond’ring Aloud” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected all through the ‘70s. The songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are; Anderson’s voice, always striking, is conveying new levels of expressiveness and emotion, particularly during the slower tunes) but are cut by their topical, occasionally unsettling lyrical import.
Succinct delivery with maximum impact is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it on better display than the one-minute and 24 seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In quick yet extraordinary fashion he deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds as innocuous as a nursery rhyme. On “Wond’ring Aloud” Anderson, sounding plaintive but optimistic, turns a seemingly simple love song into a meditation on mortality (Will the years treat us well?), ending on a line that underscores the album’s central theme: It’s only the giving that makes you what you are.
This sentiment is a respite from the unflinching social commentary that comes before and after: the aforementioned “Cross-Eyed Mary” concerns itself with a prostitute, and there is no judgment offered unless it is on the conditions that made the oldest profession possible, then and still conceivable, today. “Mother Goose”, also a deceptively upbeat number, describes a surreal tour through the London underground with an unsavory cast of characters disarmingly depicted as fairy tale characters. When, mid-way through the number, Martin Barre’s electric guitar growl punctuates the proceedings, it becomes clear that the people and places being discussed are in various states of distress and despair.
Where “Cross-Eyed Mary” might be considered a contemporary Mary Magdalene, the titular character—inspired by a series of photographs Anderson’s wife Jennie took—could be Christ himself, embodying the least of our brothers. “Aqualung’s” riff is so urgent and unforgettable, the initial verse and chorus so forceful and familiar, it’s possible that the significance of this overplayed radio standard has slipped under the collective radar. Put another way, while correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, it is more than that; a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.
It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the song (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing.
The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring…
Side Two is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?). On “My God” gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image. Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets has only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Barre’s larger-than-life chords. Then, in the extended middle section, we are treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects: it is an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also serves to function as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.
For “Hymn 43” Anderson sets his sights on the U.S.A. and in quick order sets about decimating the hypocrisy and myth-making of religion and the new religion, entertainment. It still sounds brazen today, but it was downright defiant to pen tunes in 1971 with incendiary couplets like this “If Jesus saves, he better save himself/From the gory glory seekers who’ll use his name in death.” For a postmodern twist Anderson could not have anticipated, the not-so-holy-ghost in the trinity occurred when religion and entertainment got packaged together as part of the anti-science, anti-intellectual politics we see camera-ready charlatans practicing daily on our television sets.
In just one minute on “Slipstream” Anderson captures the opportunistic shamelessness of the materially rich but spiritually fallow weekend warriors who compensate (figuratively) for their nagging consciences in the confessional or the collection basket (“And you press on God’s waiter your last dime/As he hands you the bill”). On the literal levels these are the people we all know: our peers, parents and especially our politicians, whom Anderson contemptuously nails to their crosses of gold. In an era of too-big-too-fail and the wealthiest .001%, it’s difficult to conclude that Anderson was not predicting the future of a world totally off the tracks in “Locomotive Breath” (“no way to slow down”).
Anderson saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive—or sentient—person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.
And here we are, 40 years later where a great album gets even better. First, we have the new stereo mix masterminded by the indefatigable Steven Wilson, who has become a champion for prog rock remastering. His recent work on the King Crimson catalog managed the improbable by creating indispensable copies of oft-remastered works (ones which sounded fairly spectacular in the first place). Aqualung, on the other hand, has always suffered from shoddy production and/or mastering. Even the obligatory reissues over the years have been lackluster, amplifying the hiss and burying the subtlety in the mix. What Wilson has done with the master tapes is spectacular bordering on unbelievable: the songs do not merely sound improved, they sound different, albeit in ways that do not encroach upon or overwhelm the versions we have grown so fond of over the decades. Now, each instrument (especially the bass and John Evan’s omnipresent piano) gets released from the murkiness of the earlier mixes. Anderson’s vocals are crystalline and each note from the acoustic guitar is a room-filling revelation.
For Tull aficionados the real treats are contained on the second disc: previously unreleased material(!). In addition to remixed and remastered versions of familiar favorites from the ’71 sessions (such as “Life Is a Long Song”, “Nursie” and “From Later”), we get early versions of “My God” (rough around the edges and alternate lyrics familiar to those who have heard live recordings from this era) and “Wind Up” (previously available on the last Aqualung remaster). The newly released songs are the real eye-openers: there is an early run of “Wond’ring Aloud” and initial takes of “Slipstream” and “Up the ‘Pool”. The one that is worth the proverbial price of admission is the alternate take of “Wond’ring Aloud, Again” which combines an early version of “Wond’ring Aloud” and the working draft of “Wond’ring Again” which turned up on the Living in the Past collection. Listening to this take, I found myself fantasizing that the existing (master) take of “Wond’ring Aloud” had simply segued into “Wond’ring Again” (one of the better lyrical and musical numbers from ’71) and the latter had replaced the worthy but not as essential “Up to Me”; if we had the same running order with “Wond’ring Again” instead of “Up to Me” concluding Side One we would have an even more perfect album, if that is possible. As is always the case, it’s fantastic to have this long-discarded material made available; it is imperative for fans and might help newcomers better appreciate why an album made 40 years ago can inspire so much enthusiasm.