Jethro Tull – Aqualung (40th Anniversary)

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Aqualung first came to my attention by way of my High School English teacher’s wife’s brother, but not to his knowledge.  With assorted other albums (Traffic’s John Barleycorn and CCR’s Green River being the other notables), he had moved out and left about a dozen albums behind to an unknown fate.   Aqualung was initially striking due to the anachronistic musical leanings of English madrigals, built over Brit folk and/or progressive rock.  An oddity.   Nevertheless, the use of flute as a lead instrument was refreshing, as was lead singer Ian Anderson’s pronounced English accent.  It was also striking in that my record needle hit scratches that dispelled any sense of a groove.  You get what you pay for.

But, even without scratches, the album just never sounded that good.  Sure, radio airplay kept “Aqualung” and “Locomotive Breath” in front of me, but other than the tune, I never bothered to really listen, even with a “Best of” CD, where the sound had been somewhat improved. 

About 30 years later after my first full listen, it was time for a full revisit, not coincidentally at the same time as a full remaster of the classic album by someone with proven skills. 

I’m not going to “review” the album, much.  There’s 40 years of reviews out there.  I will say that this new edition is well worth it for anyone who likes Jethro Tull.  The music is finally heard – ringing acoustic guitar, flute tone, percussion thumps and rings, gritty electric guitar leads, clear piano... all without sacrificing the 1971 era “sound.” 

Kudos to Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, who remastered the recording from the original tapes.  After this and King Crimson’s older works, I’d like him to tackle early Genesis...
The end result here, though, is makes the whole thing listenable.  If you only played the record for “the hits,” you probably wouldn’t have cared much about the rest of the songs.  Now that it’s listenable, the entirety is quite enjoyable. I not only could make out the lyrics, I wanted to.  Then at 23 years old, Ian Anderson wrote very good prose, meaningful in ways that other “progressive rock” bands didn’t even consider on their quest for over-reaching banality.  Anderson considers  the treatment of the poor, the ethics of taking from the rich, the societal neglect of taking care of others, the inconsistency within a relationship, the God question...

So, things I take away:

1.  ”Aqualung” – it’s a strange name.  I can now hear the explanation for it, and Anderson even helpfully explains in the new liner notes.  As he was considering living on the street, he imagined that the person would be of ill health, with pneumonia type symptoms, thus the lyric “Hey and you snatch your rattling last breaths, with deep-sea diver sounds.”  It’s still a different character name.

2.  In an age where it seems most fans demand jaw dropping instrumental virtuosity, this band, if it’s had, doesn’t show it.  Instead, the CD makes a very compelling case of, first and foremost, how well Anderson had worked out the songs prior to the band’s contributions, but also how well musicians can contribute when they buy into the vision.  The whole is greater than the parts – viewed within each song or the album as a whole.

3.  The liner notes indicate that in the same studio at the same time, Led Zeppelin was recording their 4th album.  I wonder what other occasions there have been where two landmark albums were recorded at the same time.  Led Zep clearly go the better recording room.

4.  The bonus disk includes alternative versions of some songs plus others not included on the original release.  Most interesting, though, was a radio ad which, to be in context, deserves a reminder that the year was 1971.  In this, Anderson remarks, “I was really trying to destroy the last vestiges of the old God concept that i was brought up with.”  And, he follows with “Anybody who has a god, while i respect the God, i don’t respect the person unless he can show me concrete evidence of why he’s adopted this god.”

That’s signals an uncertainty between faith and agnosticism, but it makes for a decidedly religiously themed album.  As clearly as Anderson pushes off the trappings of religion, namely the Church of England,he affirms the God concept just the same.  From “Wind Up” and "My God,” respectively:
So I left there in the morning
with their God tucked underneath my arm --
their half-assed smiles and the book of rules.
So I asked this God a question
and by way of firm reply,
He said -- I'm not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.

He is the God of nothing
If that's all that you can see
You are the God of everything
He's inside you and me
So lean upon him gently
And don't call on him to save you
From your social graces
And the sins you used to waive
These were brave words then, but relevant words even today, given the difficulties that major denominations are having maintaining membership amidst a spiritually desirous society that seeks more options...  The Devil, it might be said, is in the details, as those options not only refer to distancing from entrenched church authorities or even  traditional worship experience, but also to new gods, new beliefs and different, if not absent,  accountabilities.   

4 of 5 copy

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