A Passion Play is the artsiest artifact yet to issue from the maddeningly eccentric mind of Ian Anderson. Conceived for live performance as much as for disk, its ultimate presentation incorporates a short film, written, directed and edited by Anderson, in addition to the madcap hysteria of the stage show. Having not seen the play, I can only comment on the disk, which is a pop potpourri of Paradise Lost and Winnie The Pooh, among many other literary resources, not to mention a vast array of musical ideas derivative of influences as far-flung as Purcell, flamenco and modern jazz.
Viewed as a recorded oratorio, or as a prolonged “single,” or as any in-between hybrid, A Passion Play strangles under the tonnage of its pretensions — a jumble of anarchic, childishly precocious gestures that are intellectually and emotionally faithless to any idea other than their own esoteric non-logic.
Like Thick As a Brick, the aesthetic of A Passion Play is desperate zaniness, but here it is carried to even further extremes. The scenario roughly parallels the Passion of Christ. This parallel is not made half as clear in the play’s gibberish, pun-laden verses and double-entendres (e.g., the playing back and forth between “be” and “bee,” and in phrases like “Man/son of man”) as in the album’s cutesy playbill-within-record-jacket, perused in relation to its presumptuous title. If one undertakes the thankless task of unraveling the text as it coincides with the playbill, the sequence of events takes the following vague outline. Ronnie Pilgrim, a supercilious atheist, describes his own funeral, then goes through purgatory, part of which is a movie rerun of his life. He is teased by the saints who say: “Or/are we here/for the glory/for the story for the gory satisfaction of telling you how absolutely awful you really are,” and then both narrates and is imaginative participant in a shaggy-dog fable, recited to film, called “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” which (accompanied by the album’s most ponderous “incidental” music) is meant to sum up the mundanely single vision of his whole life.
There ensues a descent into hell (“a business office,” according to the program), in which Anderson takes, among other roles, that of Satan, followed by a resurrection into the drawing room of a Magus Perde. I leave it for the devout Tull freak to argue the details, the myriad subtleties, contradictions and paradoxes of this banal putdown, since, to my mind, neither the text nor the music seems to justify further analysis. Except for the addition of the “Hare-Spectacles” narration, the structure of A Passion Play is as free-form as that of Thick As a Brick. In tone, it is the ultimate exaggeration of self-indulgent English whimsy, an intellectual tease inflated with portent but devoid of wonder — in its cumulative expression mean and trivial.
The only positive aspect of the album is the performance of the music itself. The Jethro Tull band (same alignment as in Brick) is truly virtuosic in the manner of a polished chamber ensemble. The high points are those interludes that feature Anderson’s extraordinary flute playing, some of it seemingly multi-tracked. Two short pastoral sections that precede and follow the abominable “pooh perplex” are especially lovely. The overall impact of this music, however, is very slight. Not a single leitmotif sticks in the mind. What blues figurations there are are constipated and redundant. As a whole, the score is far less substantial than Thick As a Brick, itself a suffocatingly fey concoction. Finally, one leaves A Passion Play with the feeling of having been subjected to 45 minutes of vapid twittering and futzing about, all play and no passion — expensive, tedious nonsense.