Jethro Tull: Back to Basics (Sort Of)

After the back-to-back-to-back brilliance of their previous three albums, a letdown seemed inevitable; amazingly, Ian Anderson & Co. raised the bar, instead.
Jethro Tull
WarChild: The 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

Jethro Tull, again?

It’s Steven Wilson’s fault.

Actually, it’s Jethro Tull’s fault. That is, the fact that we have yet another deluxe reissue of another Jethro Tull album has everything to do with the fact that this was one of most productive and consistently excellent bands, progressive or otherwise, all through the ‘70s. So in this regard, it’s not Jethro Tull’s fault that we’re getting a new reissue each year because, back in the day, they were knocking off classic albums every year.

Still giddy with all the goodies on offer from the recent reissues of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, we now get the next album in the Tull canon, 1974’s WarChild. First, the easy part: this is yet another embarrassment of riches. The original album itself is generally rated an upper-tier Tull recording; this generous box set package, replete with bonus tracks, previously unreleased songs and an 80 page booklet (!) makes it (yet another) imperative purchase for Jethro Tull enthusiasts.

Jethro Tull’s output can be broken into a series of trios, with their first three being transitional affairs while the band honed their approach and purpose. The next three, their Holy Trinity, remain an undisputed high water mark not only of Jethro Tull’s history, but must rank among the upper echelon of prog era masterpieces. Their next three, commencing with WarChild and including the misunderstood, maligned or wrongly unheralded Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! are most ripe for reassessment. (The next three, the “pastoral trilogy” are considered a return to form, and then there’s the series of snyth-laden efforts, and after that everyone pretty much wrote the band off, even though they ended up winning the controversial Grammy for 1987’s Crest of a Knave. More on all this, someday soon.)

After the back-to-back-to-back brilliance of the Holy Trinity, a letdown seemed inevitable, due either to creative or physical exhaustion. Impressively, even amazingly, Ian Anderson & Co. not only kept pace but, in some regards, raised the bar a bit. It is to Jethro Tull’s considerable credit that they returned to a more succinct, song-based structure. While both “one-song” album epics were successful, critically and artistically (and financially), it is likely because –and not in spite– of their effective execution that Anderson decided, correctly, that he had done all he could do, at least without resorting to repetition or self-parody. This, of course, is something fellow prog acts, particularly Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, failed to embrace or accept, to their ultimate chagrin.

What the ten tracks from the original album indicate, beyond question, is that Ian Anderson continued to grow as both tunesmith and lyricist. If some of the material does not hold up quite as well, there are a few songs that can be considered alongside the best work he ever did. To start with the most confounding of the bunch, “Bungle in the Jungle”. Still remarkably — and annoyingly — radio friendly, this was one of the band’s rare hits, and it’s unfortunate it remains amongst the handful of tunes non-fans associate with Jethro Tull. Lyrically, an obvious antecedent to Peter Gabriel’s superior “Games Without Frontiers”, with jungle shenanigans sending up our human foibles, the sing-along quality of “Bungle” makes it innocuous and more than a little cloying. Not prog enough, perhaps?

There is the matter of leftover material from the aborted A Passion Play sessions (more about those in this article, “Ripe with Rich Attainments“). Both “Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” were left on the cutting room floor once A Passion Play took shape, and while they were not appropriate for that opus, they function wonderfully as standalone songs. Indeed, Anderson’s concerns with the environment and snarky critics seem admirably prescient in our climate-change denying, Internet chat-room present-day. And for anyone looking for a definitive take on eschewing the spurious, superficial spoils of super-stardom, “Only Solitaire” continues what Anderson started with “Nothing to Say” (from Benefit) and “Cheap Day Return” (from Aqualung). Anderson kept it real, then, and his refusal to acquiesce to convention remains refreshing, today.

“Two Fingers”, which closes the album, is a reworked and overly polished version of “Lick Your Fingers Clean”, which never made the final cut for inclusion on Aqualung. “The Third Hoorah” and “Queen and Country”, complete with accordion and bagpipe embellishments, satisfy prog’s more-is-more penchant for exploration and discovery, circa ’74. Speaking of exploration and discovery, Anderson expanded his already-impressive instrumental repertoire to include saxophone (featured extensively on A Passion Play). While he generally disparages his efforts in the liner notes, he’s being, at best, too self-critical by half.

In fact, the sax, particularly on the title track, makes the music more adventurous and less predictable, imbuing a certain elegance when augmented by the swelling strings: there is real craftsmanship at work that skirts pretentiousness and manages to elevate a song that would otherwise be merely ambitious and intelligent. The judicious employment of sax and carnivalesque accordion throughout lend the proceedings a mingled vibe of high and lowbrow: collectively the songs alternate in pace, topic and intensity, but the whole is convincingly unified, even tasteful in a way Jethro Tull never was, or necessarily wanted to be, before.

And who on earth but Ian Anderson could pivot from interrogations of geopolitics and war to a couple of ironic, almost touching odes to women-for-hire? “Ladies” and “Back Door Angels”, if not the most complex topics (lyrically or conceptually), are given, respectively, a gorgeous acoustic backdrop and raucous counterpoint between Anderson’s flute and Martin Barre’s electric guitar. Taken together, they offer further evidence that Anderson’s conceptual and intellectual acumen was a notch, or more, above most of his contemporaries.

Special recognition is warranted for “SeaLion”, which represents the whole as well as any other selection, and also offers (yet another) yardstick to determine whether or not one is really a Tull fan, or if one gets prog rock, and particularly if one understands –and appreciates– that it wasn’t all twenty minute marathons of instrumental overload. Sending up society and/or show business, distilling the animal-kingdom-as-metaphor-for-the-human-race formula that dominated the “Château d’Isaster” sessions, and penning some of his sharpest lyrics for what some may consider a throwaway tune, all in under four minutes? That’s just how Ian Anderson rolled.

And, once again, it warrants repeating that Anderson is, without question, the preeminent lyricist of this era (more on that in this article, “Jethro Tull: Aqualung (40th Anniversary Special Edition)“). If, for instance John Lennon or, better yet, David Bowie ever had written the lines “The ice cream castles are refrigerated/The super-marketeers are on parade/There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck/As you light your cigarette on the burning deck”, audiences and, importantly, critics would wet themselves, and rightly so. And, let it be stated (once again), that while Martin Barre is amongst the most inventive and underappreciated musicians of the decade, Barriemore Barlow, mixing propulsive beats and sick syncopation, is the best drummer not enough people know.

As the numerous bonus tracks make abundantly clear, Ian Anderson was insanely productive, even by his standards, throughout 1974. At this point, Jethro Tull was averaging one album per year, and this pace would continue through 1980. More, Anderson toyed seriously with the idea of writing a screenplay with the aim of making WarChild a motion picture. Wiser, or less pretentious heads prevailed, and those extravagant plans were scrapped, which Anderson wryly recalls, with typically self-deprecating fashion in the liner notes. Speaking of the liner notes, this deluxe edition, as mentioned, features an 80 page booklet, replete with lyrics, interviews and a track-by-track analysis by Anderson himself. Even fanatical completists are likely to be satisfied, possibly sated, by this generous packaging.

The bonus tracks will, naturally, elicit different reactions from different people. There is a great deal of material that was understandably left off official albums, including a handful that have remained in the vault until now. As curiosities or, again, fodder for incurable completists, they are now available (and remastered, to boot!). Some, like “March, The Mad Scientist”, “Rainbow Blues”, “Quartet” and “SeaLion II”, have appeared on various collections and are welcome inclusions to this set. Others, like the extensive classical renditions of WarChild songs/themes, range from mostly pleasant to unoffensive, and occasionally hint at something like grace (“Pan Dance”, “The Beach”, “Waltz of the Angels”).

As always, the liberties Steven Wilson takes with the remixes will enlighten, thrill or offend, all depending on how infatuated or open-minded the individual. As usual, Wilson’s obsessions with voice and drum sounds move these elements to the forefront; as expected, the listener can discern certain vocals or effects scarcely noticeable in previous editions, and we ultimately get a fresh presentation that does not stray unnecessarily far from the original. Whether we want, or need, the 5.1 surround (in 96/24 LPCM and AC3 Dolby Digital for those keeping score at home) is entirely up to how discerning one’s ears happen to be. If at times the clarity is (typically) astonishing, occasionally we are too aware of a fidelity-obsessed fetishist who wants to show the world what they should have been hearing all along. A little tinkering goes a long way, and, fortunately, Wilson’s handiwork is never excessive to the point of distraction. By this point we know Wilson’s heart is in the right place and, after all, he has Anderson’s full blessing.

This set is not essential for the casual fan; interesting for the open-minded, and probably a requirement for the faithful. Bottom line: this ongoing series of remixes brings welcome focus on albums that are indispensable cogs in the Big Prog Machine and, as significant, works that merit reappraisal from critics and, best case, new discovery by the uninitiated.