Ian Anderson: Living in the Present
However unwittingly, Ian Anderson wrote his artistic epitaph all the way back in 1976. “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die!”, the hit from the album of the same name, used music as a metaphor (or vice versa) where he, understandably, wondered if—or when—a musician might be reasonably expected to retire. The answer, of course, has always been straightforward: when the musician feels like it. Whether written off by critics, ignored by trend makers or still selling out arenas, only the artist can decide when it’s finally time to walk away.
For an iconoclastic prog rocker who is currently enjoying his 44th year as leader of Jethro Tull, it’s at once ironic and appropriate that his first single, from 1969, is entitled “Living in the Past”. The next sentence is inevitable: whether or not Anderson is figuratively wallowing in the brighter glow of glory days long gone, he soldiers on. As it happened, he was—and is—not yet too old to rock and roll. (That sentence was inevitable as well.) Jethro Tull continued to make remarkable music throughout the ‘70s and was steady if not always impressive during the ‘80s. Things slowed down dramatically in the ‘90s and no new material has surfaced in almost a decade. Nevertheless, Anderson has been an indefatigable performer, leading his ever-evolving line-ups on tour pretty much without pause. If his voice was effectively shot many moons ago, the crowds still turned up for the shows.
Was he supposed to fade away or quietly tend to his salmon farms? We tend to mock our elder statesmen when they get lazy or lose inspiration. (This begs the uneasy question: is rock and roll almost exclusively a young musician’s game? With few exceptions in terms of both quality and consistency, the answer is a resounding yes.) And so: what is there to say about someone who continues to make music past retirement age? Fair play and cheers to anyone who is willing and able to stay in the game. All of which is to say it was surprising, but not disheartening to hear a new album was in the works. On the other hand, revisiting—and updating—a progressive milestone and masterpiece? Hmmm.
Ian Anderson, who has cycled through sidemen the way his more hedonistic compatriots once speed-dialed through dealers, has yet another cast of characters for this recording. The gentlemen from the ‘72 line-up have been gone for ages. The one exception, throughout, has been Martin Barre, lead guitarist from the second album on. Distressingly, if revealingly, Barre is nowhere to be heard on these proceedings, which are intriguingly (if revealingly) entitled Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: TAAB2 (Thick As a Brick 2). Hmmm.
Expectations were moderate, to put it mildly. Simply, if harshly put, the notion of this entire enterprise seemed like a recipe for fiasco, an exercise equal parts ill-advised nostalgia, indulgence and obvious lack of inspiration. Recent years have not been kind to either Anderson’s voice or, judging from the scarcity of new works, his muse. In the great old days, these were the two sharpest arrows in his quiver.
And yet, here he is, pressing on because he can; because he needs to. The verdict? It’s not terrible. It’s not even bad, actually. And yet, it is difficult to determine if it’s really very good. It is not remotely an embarrassment which, given the stakes and circumstances, is not an inconsiderable achievement. Of course there will be fans prepared to protest Anderson’s audacity: how dare he meddle with the legacy of a dearly-loved album, etc. Those unforgiving, unimaginative folks are advised to give this one a miss, though they may in fact be missing out on material that is interesting and more than occasionally quite satisfactory.
Martin Barre is sorely missed (on principle if nothing else) but in fairness, his young replacement Florian Ophale acquits himself more than adequately. The rest of the band, including drummer Scott Hammond, bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O’Hara may not make anyone forget the ’72 crew, but—again, in fairness—few outfits (then, now) could.
The impetus of this endeavor is a doubling-down of sorts, revisiting a gambit employed for the original. Thick As a Brick, as the elaborate faux-newspaper packaging declared, featured lyrics from an eight year old wunderkind called Gerald Bostock. Now, 40 years on, Anderson imagines the various paths this fictional character’s life may have taken. As such, careers ranging from banker to soldier to preacher are explored, with varying levels of effectiveness.
The lyrics are mostly okay, but seldom encroach on the rarefied air Anderson occupied for the initial decades of his career. The music is, frankly, better than any reasonable fan could hope for. At least the instruments are all being played by human beings and there is a merciful minimum of studio tinkering and technological trickery (thanks in no small part to mixing engineer—and prog rock MVP—Steven Wilson). The vocals? There is no way around it, the vocals are weak. At this point Anderson utilizes a strategy of necessity, half-speaking in a sing-song style. Unfortunately there are also sections of deadpan narrative delivered in an unembellished speaking voice. These moments are aesthetically disappointing, more so for their unoriginality and the last resort of sorts that they signify than anything else. Overall, there is sufficient variety, in terms of the pacing and the sounds, to result in a discernible, sporadically pleasant flow. The packaging is neither as clever nor as impressive as the original, but the old version didn’t come with a bonus DVD featuring interviews, a making-of feature and lyric readings (this one does).
The key question remains: is it memorable? Will it be returned to with any regularity? Check back in a month, or a year, or a few decades. Grading on the curve, it seems unsporting to be excessively harsh. This project could never replace or even compare favorably with the first one, but not many albums could. To this listener (and long-time fan) the results are much more lively and worthwhile than anything Anderson has done since the early ‘90s. That he had the tenacity to pull this off without resorting to self-satire puts him in a better light than most of his peers who are safely enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and/or debasing themselves during the Super Bowl.
Bottom line: the effort does little to affect the impact of the ‘72 release. Or any of the albums that preceded or followed it. It puts the clearest perspective possible on the question only the most ardent fans bother to ask (and, as such, serves as a curious kind of public service): what would happen if Ian Anderson had stuck around for another 40 years after he created Thick As a Brick? Answer: this is what would have happened.