Ripe with Rich Attainments: Jethro Tull’s ‘A Passion Play’, Reassessed

A Passion Play tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados; it obliges time and attention to let it work its charms.
Jethro Tull
A Passion Play, An Extended Performance

For prog-rock aficionados, the hits keep coming, and one man above all deserves our gratitude: Steven Wilson.

Whether it’s Yes, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull — all of whom he has worked with in recent years — the question arises: how much is too much with these deluxe reissues? The answer, naturally is: it’s never enough, assuming there are ample fans interested or insane enough to keep coughing up the coin to procure them.

Once again, it must be said that, like the previous Wilson-affiliated productions, this is no half-assed cash grab offering the same-old, same-old with ostensibly improved fidelity. Rather, this is an elaborate undertaking, with a proper remix, a 5.1 surround sound (nerd alert!) and, not least, a fairly exhaustive booklet which details everything except where the Hare left those lost spectacles.

Let’s get the potential controversy out of the way, right up front. As always, purists will be given pause by some of the liberties Wilson takes, albeit with Ian Anderson’s blessing. What listeners will notice is not a straight remastering but a full remix; which is to say, in many regards a reimagining. For those purists the original versions are sacrosanct, supposed warts and all. Personally, I won’t quibble with any artist or producer’s acumen when it is stated forthrightly and without apology. However, I also reserve the right to wrinkle my nose a tad, just as I have regarding Pete Townshend’s tinkering with Quadrophenia (See “The Past Is Calling: Reconsidering The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’“).

All that aside, this latest project is an obsessive’s ambrosia: four separate discs of Jethro Tull’s most controversial album. If you have even read this far, you probably already know whether or not this box set is something you’d acquire, much less be interested in.

For anyone still on the fence, here’s one fanatic’s perspective. It can be argued, as both Anderson and Wilson do, that the decision to bring focus to a more basic mix (emphasizing vocals, guitar, bass, and drums) imbues an otherwise unattainable clarity. Or, for the perverse super-purists, restores integrity to the initial vision, assuming this after-the-fact tinkering better approximates primary intent.

To take one instance of intent vs. implementation, Anderson is on record as being unconvinced about his soprano sax playing (which this writer believes to be an unqualified success). As such, the instances here where it’s diminished or eliminated(!), will be either a revelation or a travesty, depending upon who is listening. To further muddle matters, I find it to be a bit of both. I love the material enough to enjoy an alternate version, especially one that attempts to realize some of what Anderson initially envisioned.

On the other hand, Anderson has always been ambivalent about this album, which complicates things on at least two levels. One, this album has polarized audiences (and pumpkin eaters), even Jethro Tull fans, for over four decades, so some acknowledgment, if not respect, should be granted to those who took the time to “get” and ultimately savor the music. Two, if Anderson has never been crazy about A Passion Play, how unaffected are his intentions, giving Wilson his goodwill to “reimagine” the album? And perhaps more importantly, who cares?

Most people would agree that once a work of art becomes public property, it ceases to be the sole proprietorship of the artist. Indeed, it could be more convincingly speculated that the moment it becomes public (not to mention paid for) the artist ceases to have any proprietorship. In any event, for those seeking richer fidelity featuring the original sounds, this edition may indeed be too much of a…great? thing. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Speaking of rabbits, Intermission Time!

Obviously, as most Tull fans are already aware, there can be no proper reappraisal of A Passion Play without inclusion of the aborted Château d’Hérouville sessions that preceded it. Not-so-affectionately referred to, by the band, as the “Château d’Isaster” tapes, portions of this material have been doled out in various incarnations over the years. The three-part “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal” was a more than a very agreeable novelty upon its first release on 1988’s box set. It begged the tantalizing questions: is there more of this material and, if so, is this Tull’s lost masterpiece? The answers turned out to be: yes, and not so much.

However, the collected tapes from these sessions (discussed in the liner notes) represent an earnest, if uneven attempt at a double LP: a conceptual piece of sorts that is heavy on the animal imagery and God-as-Director of the Passion Play we’re all acting in. And if that sounds at once wholly of its time and too-pretentious-by-half, it was. But some of the ideas are executed to near perfection (the aforementioned “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal”, and experimental tone poems like “First Post”, “Animelée”, and “Tiger Toon”). Some of the material was repurposed later (“Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away”) and, of course, some of it resurfaced, in more polished form (“Critique Oblique”, the melody of “Law of the Bungle Part I”), on the subsequent A Passion Play. The rest of it ranges from lackluster to banal, and it’s easy to understand why Anderson contentedly left it on the cutting room floor (“Sailor”, “Left Right”, and “The Big Top” all sound like half-baked works in progress, heavy on the pomposity, light on emotional or aesthetic impact).

It’s fascinating and enlightening to hear, in its unvarnished entirety, all the work the band did during that ill-fated journey to France (the same studio, incidentally, where such beloved works as Elton John’s Honky Château and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds were recorded). Where Anderson has given some of these songs face-lifts (flute here, vocals there) in past reissues, he agreed, again, with Wilson to present them as they were initially recorded, without embellishment or upgrade. As such, they are now genuine historical documents, and fans can ascertain what worked, what could have been, and why Tull decided to quit while they were ahead (or behind) and start over from scratch.

It remains astonishing that A Passion Play, adored and/or derided as a complex, occasionally impenetrable progressive opus, was indeed conceived and executed in a matter of weeks. For better or worse, it sounds (at least the first several dozen times) like the result of considerable deliberation and agonizing. Perhaps Anderson & Co. had gotten all the bad vibes out of their systems, and by the time they returned to the friendly turf of Old Blighty, they were unencumbered, fully unloosing that pent-up creativity.

Whatever the explanation — and it might be as simple as the fact that, circa 1973, Ian Anderson was locked in like few rock musicians before or since — A Passion Play is a work that, especially following the successful and user-friendly Thick as a Brick, was practically destined for backlash. And the backlash came quickly, at least from critics. It’s illuminating that during a period when, shall we say, ambitious prog-rock albums were at worst tolerated, this work was simply too much for the average columnist. The fans, nevertheless, were picking up what the band was putting down, and the album hit #1 stateside.

Writing about this album in my assessment of Jethro Tull’s “Holy Trinity” (see “The Holy Trinity: Jethro Tull“), I offer the following thoughts:

It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

Anderson would go on to do work that was better received (say, Songs from the Wood) and, arguably, plain better (Minstrel in the Gallery), and to this day he keeps on keeping on, always finding audiences wherever he roams. Still, whether fans concur, or whether the artist himself agrees, at no point was Anderson as brazen, adventurous and near-infallible as he was during the recording of A Passion Play.

It was, as the generous and most welcome new liner notes indicate, not the most pleasant or, initially, most productive few months. Nevertheless, their pain remains our pleasure: it makes little difference what critics, certain fans or the authors of a particular work have to say; as is always the case, meaningful art will find an audience. A Passion Play endures, and matters, because it continues to confront, excite, and defy easy explanation. A touchstone from a ceaselessly maligned genre, Anderson’s 1973 masterpiece represents an eternal J’accuse to conformity and cliché, and its very refusal to be pigeonholed or even clarified will ensure that it continues to delight and surprise listeners. Scorning convention, after all, is what prog-rock of this era, at its best, attempted to do, and few did it better than Jethro Tull.