Although not in the shops yet, I was able to acquire a ‘white label’ pressing of the current Jethro winner Thick As A Brick from their London agents, Chrysalis Artists…. The group consists of Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan, Jeffery Hammond-Hammond and Barriemore Barlow. Written around a poem by St. Cleve child prodigy Gerald Bostock, their music spins a delicate web of sensitive sounds: sometimes lilting, sometimes soaring to form a brilliant backdrop for the meaningful lyrics and improvisational techniques….
“One doubts at times the validity of what appears to be an expanding theme throughout the two continuous sides of this record but the result is at worst entertaining and at least aesthetically palatable.”
Ian Anderson (a.k.a. Julian Stone-Mason B.A.) has not only slyly reviewed his own album, he’s also supplied the newspaper which contains it. Like so much flounder, Thick As A Brick comes wrapped in the St. Cleve’s Chronicle, an apocryphal yet typical daily of Anderson’s design. Played across the front page is the Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock scandal (the epithet refers to the author of Paradise Lost, not the soul singer). Eight-year-old Gerald is adjudged unfit to accept first prize from The Society For Literary Advancement And Gestation (SLAG) by virtue of the questionable contents of his epic poem Thick As A Brick.
Gerald is one of Ian Anderson’s incarnations and ruses. Besides lyricist and impersonator, Anderson is also composer, arranger, singer, flutist, acoustic guitarist, violinist, saxophonist, trumpeter, satirist and overall conceptualizer. His adeptness at most of these functions, in particular, his ability to balance and fuse them, has created one of rock’s most sophisticated and ground-breaking products.
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Most of the Chronicle’s features display a dry, fatuous, very English sense of humor. Under the “Deaths” column, there is the late Charles Stiff; and stories have titles along the lines of “Mongrel Dog Soils Actor’s Foot” and “Non-Rabbit Missing.” Characters in, say, a page two story will turn up again on page five in equally ludicrous circumstances. It is all very clever, yet at first seemingly irrelevant.
Page seven carries the words to Thick As A Brick. The writing is very dense and enigmatic, and the unidentified shifts in narrative voice compound the difficulty. The poem, as best I can make out, is a sweeping social critique, as pessimistic about poets, painters and the generally virtuous as it is condemnatory of politicians and other figures of authority. And what more perfectly encompasses or embodies the world Anderson aims to criticize than a daily newspaper? The paper in turn encompasses the poem. Furthermore, there are names in the poem which, refer back to items in the newspaper. The poem “reviews” the newspaper, just as Stone-Mason reviewed the record. The entire package operates with the allusiveness of a Nabokov novel.
Like “Wind Up” on Aqualung, Ian asks to “Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth.” The son who is pronounced “fit to fight” is helpless and incontinent; the man “fit for peace” “we’ll/ … teach … to be a wise man/how to fool the rest.” There are only the “doer and the thinker,” the “wise men” and the “fools.” Yet the distinction hardly matters: “Let me help you to pick up your dead as the sins of the fathers are fed with/the blood of the fools/and the thoughts of the wise …” Failure is inescapable. Mundane yearnings for the immortal Anderson renders with the absurdity of John Lennon’s “A soap impression of his wife that he ate and donated to the National Trust”: “And where are all the Sportsmen/who always pulled you through?/They’re all resting down in Cornwall — writing up their memoirs for a/paperback edition of the Boy Scout manual.”
Stitched unobtrusively into this fabric of decay is a thread of salvation, and it lies in music. Anderson could be speaking of Aqualung in these lines, “Let me sing of the losers/who lie in the street as the last bus/goes by.” And compare, from Aqualung’s “Wind Up,” “I’d rather look around me — compose a better song/’cos that’s the honest measure of my worth….” to Thick As A Brick’s “Let me make you a present of song….” Despite the differing formats, the themes of Aqualung and Thick As A Brick are essentially the same.
For all its intricacy, the “theme” or poetry of Thick As A Brick is its least important aspect. Anderson’s language (in Aqualung as well) is often wordy and ponderous, and its bitter condescension and breadth of denunciation can be unpleasant. What marks this album as a significant departure from other Jethro Tull work, and rock in general, is the organization of all its music into one continuous track. Albums like Sgt. Pepper or Tommy were complete entities in themselves, but still chose to use songs as their basic components. While sections of Thick As A Brick are melodically distinct, they all inherently relate to each other. What connecting there is is uncontrived and is often the occasion for some of the album’s boldest playing. The lyrics, clever and dense as they are, are chiefly valuable as a premise for the music.
Since Stand Up, Jethro Tull’s music has always had a chamber music feel to it; here, the structure, too, of classical music is more closely followed. A continuous work permits the kind of introduction, modification and re-introduction of themes (the allusiveness) which is a hallmark of classical music. (Unlike jazz, Brick sounds very strictly arranged.) Within the terms of the band’s own development, the move also makes sense. The exploratory eclecticism of Stand Up, followed by the stylistic homogeneity of Benefit and then the thematic unity of Aqualung, led to a work which is both stylistically homogeneous and thematically or conceptually unified. Yet if I had to name the musical influences Thick As A Brick most strongly suggested, they would have to be classical: Anderson’s English forbears Purcell and Handel. There is also an incorporation of Spanish and English folk modes.
The album’s opening is sprightly, with Ian’s flute poking in and out; a more introspective, minor key digression follows, then a stalking bass line, accompanied by horns and John Evan’s excited Rick Wakeman-like organ. The relentless and mechanical gives way to something very stately and regal, as English as, yet less folksy than the opening passage. The piano plays arpeggios; Anderson overlays a jazzy flute. Some over-dubbed guitar yammerings follow.
Anderson takes to the violin and creates a whirling, macabre setting for the combative son’s announcement, “I’ve come down from the upper/class to mend your rotten ways.” As the other son begins to speak, the music becomes milder, then sunnier. A bell-like organ rings out behind a jig, performed in almost telegraphic rhythm. This, and its reprise on side two, is the album’s most attractive section. An ominous heraldic organ shatters the calm, and the side ends with the electric guitar shrieking helplessly, like a wounded bird.
Side two reintroduces side one’s second statement. It merges into an energetic though hollow, unemphatic drum solo; then some free jazz, over which a set of lyrics is recited. A rather fine English folk melody emerges. Anderson’s voice becomes more severe, a classical guitar is introduced, and the music takes an Iberian turn. A harpsichord plays as a guitar repeats the riff from George Harrison’s “Wah Wah.” The writing becomes very linear, with rapid harmonic shifts. This alternates with a vaulting. melodic figure. Then a sudden whoosh, and we return to the closing theme of side one, now strongly reinforced by the organ, only to be momentarily interrupted by some expansive strings. As almost a postscript, the initial theme is recalled, and with it the sentiment, “And/your wise men don’t know how it/feels to be thick as a brick.”
The members of Jethro Tull were hand-picked by Anderson (several are old school chums); no one, save Ian, remains from the original band. The playing, not surprisingly, is tight as a drum. Martin Barre’s guitar and John Evan’s keyboards especially shine, and Ian’s singing is no longer abrasive. Whether or not Thick As A Brick is an isolated experiment, it is nice to know that someone in rock has ambitions beyond the four or five minute conventional track, and has the intelligence to carry out his intentions, in all their intricacy, with considerable grace.