Dating from at least the Electric Prunes’ Mass In D Minor, rock and religion have evinced an unlikely affinity for each other. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, Peter Townshend, John Lennon, George Harrison (and let us not forget the Reverend Richard Penniman) have all at some point dedicated themselves and their music to God in his myriad varieties. On the heels of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson joins this heady list.
Tull is one of our most serious and intelligent groups, and Anderson’s choice of subject for Aqualung — the distinction between religion and God — is witness to that. Further, Tull has a musical sophistication to match its thematic ambitions. Where This Was, their first album, was aimless and disorganized, Stand Up, with its dabbling in ethnic and classical forms, was eclectic in the best sense. Out of that experimentation was forged in Benefit a sound which finally provided the band with a concrete identity.
Once a group has arrived at a coherent style, the next logical step is a concept album, and it is on the shoals of concepts that many a band runs aground. Often such albums lack the hint of self-irony, which is basic to great rock and roll, and therefore come off sounding pompous. Ultimately an album like Tommy, for example, must stand or fall on its quality as a collection of songs; the thematic gloss is absolutely secondary.
Aqualung is the album’s lead character, and is so named for his rheumy cough. Side one consists of a series of seedy vignettes drawn from modern secular English life, while the printed lyrics are cast in Gothic lettering to emphasize the album’s liturgical basis. The title song depicts the beggar in all his shabbiness and lechery. “Aqualung” is actually three songs; as the different moods of the narrator unfold, the music changes accordingly. The initial melodic statement sung in a harsh, surly voice is ugly and plodding; it then shades into something milder and more sympathetic, then into something which rocks a little more.
Another of society’s dregs, cross-eyed Mary the slut, of the song of the same name, is the object of Aqualung’s attentions. Anderson sounds equally disapproving here. “Mother Goose” is the kind of song that Anderson writes best. As in “Sossity” on Benefit, he uncannily captures the feel of a real Elizabethan madrigal (a consort of recorders here helps it get across). It’s a song about a Hampstead fair, and is filled with descriptive detail which is at once archaic and up to date. Lyrics and melody mutually accomplish the same purpose, for both express the continuity of English life.
Side two, subtitled “My God,” deals more explicitly with religion. The nub of the issue is Christian hypocrisy, how people manipulate notions of God for their own ends. There is some rather obvious talk of plastic crucifixes, Blakean allusions to locking “Him in His golden cage,” and invective; “The bloody Church of England/In chains of history/Requests your earthy presence at/The vicarage for tea.” Beneath the accusatory tone is a moving musical theme. Again, the structure is constantly shifting. There are stately hymnal changes, a jazzy flute break, a pomp-and-circumstantial motive which, when inverted, assumes a more chromatic, modern queasiness. The gamut of religious experience is encompassed in this song.
“Wind Up” winds up the album and embodies most of the album’s difficulties. While Anderson is adept at conceiving a musical approximation of an idea, his lyrics are overly intentional, ponderous, and didactic. It would be possible to ignore the lyrics, as lyrics can usually be ignored, except that Anderson sings them so melodramatically. Nor is his theatricality appropriate to the ideas or words. The over-enthusiastic delivery is probably meant to compensate for his inherent vocal limitations, but the original problem is Anderson’s choice of subject. At a time when the more arcane varities of religious experiences are trumpeted far and wide, and atheism and agnosticism still more than hold their own, it is difficult for the modern temper to get worked up over good old-fashioned Christian hypocrisy. When Anderson sufferingly sings —
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.”
So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares);
Before I’m through I’d like to say my prayers —
“I don’t believe you: you got the whole damn thing all wrong —
He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.”
— there is something depressingly anti-climactic about it all. There is a lot of misplaced emotion on this record.
Thus, despite the fine musicianship and often brilliant structural organization of songs, this album is not elevated, but undermined by its seriousness.