Friday, 4 July 2014

Jethro Tull (V): their most underrated album

After the success of Thick as a Brick, Jethro Tull decided to get serious. Yeah, let’s do another concept album, why not? But hey guys, no goofing around this time, we had Thick as a Brick for that, let’s be deep and stuff. That’s what they said. Or something like that, I guess.

1973 saw the release of A Passion Play, which is a very interesting album because I think most of the critics could have shoved what they wrote up their, hm, ahem, yes that. Ok, I should respect other people’s opinions, my apologies. But in short, the album got negative reviews in general (although it peaked the charts in the States), and my review is almost ass-licking positive. Well, maybe that’s not the word I’m looking for, but in the last couple of years my enthusiasm for this album has grown exponentially.

True, true, I have to admit I didn’t like the album at first. I found it (almost very) dull. I think I even wrote somewhere in youtube that I’d never really be a fan. It’s not an easy listen, it’s dense, thick, thick as a brick (here I am, grinning like an idiot because of the easy reference), you can see folk, jazz and rock influences mixed the way only Jethro Tull can do it. However, after, I think, three listens, I fell deeply in love with it. It’s totally unique, it doesn’t repeat itself and the lyrics, yeah, the stuff I usually ignore, are magnificent.

Here's the whole album:

Ian Anderson is apparently not very fond of it, judging by what he said in 1999: "With Thick As A Brick, we took the idea of the concept album and had some fun with it. Now we thought it was time to do something a bit more serious and make an album that wasn't a spoof and wasn't meant to be fun. We ended up going to record the album at Chateau D'Herouville, in France, where people like Elton John and Cat Stevens had made records. Our original plan was not to make another concept album. The project started off as a collection of songs, including two that ended up going onto our next album, War Child: 'Bungle in the Jungle' and 'Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day).' A certain theme had begun to emerge among the songs - how the animal life is mirrored in the dog-eat-dog world of human society - but the project just wasn't working out. So we abandoned what we'd done and went back to England.

Back home, I ended up almost completely rewriting all of the material we'd worked on in France, and this became 'A Passion Play'. The concept grew out of wondering about the possible choices one might face after death. It was a dark album, just as we had intended, but it was missing some of the fun and variety that was in Thick As A Brick. The critics savaged us. Chris Welch of Melody Maker and Bob Hilburn at the Los Angeles Times wrote really negative reviews that everybody jumped on and reprinted or based their own reviews on. It really snowballed from there, and we got a fair old pasting for that one. On reflection, the album is a bit one-dimensional. It's certainly not one of my favorites, although it has become something of a cult album with some fans."

Also, from the same interview: "... it's just not really appreciated at the time, a bit too contrived, a little bit too heavy-handed, but looking back on it with the passing of the years, you can be a little bit more generous in the way that you view it and the way you listen to it, and I guess that's how I feel about Passion Play. There are two thirds of it which are actually okay. It's just heavy going to play, which is why, I think, we very rarely play any bits of it.

"I think for me the problem with it, if there was a problem, was that the humour that was there on Thick As A Brick was not there on Passion Play. I think because a lot of the humour had been knocked out of us after a year of being away, touring, living in Switzerland, rehearsing, then recording in France, then finally coming back to England and starting all over again to rehearse and record virtually all-new material. That kind of took a lot of the humour out of it. I think, for me, looking back on it, that's the thing that's missing from Passion Play. It's a little bit too deadpan. It doesn't have that kind of slightly irreverent and humorous kind of little interludes or moments of light relief that would make it more listenable."

On the other hand, Martin Barre apparently likes it more: "I think that, out of all the records that we have made, more people talk about Passion Play than a lot of albums. It's a memorable album. I think it's an important album; I think that the difficult thing was going back to England, having scrapped a whole album. Months and months of work, and the terrible thing, for [Ian] more than for anybody else, was having to then completely start again, and rewrite, re-record, relearn, re-rehearse. But I think it was a good album, and the tour, and the sort of theatrics that came with the tour, were quite a memorable period."

Before I go further, and to clarify Ian Anderson’s words, I should say that previous to this album, the band started another one, recorded at Château d’Hérouville, near Paris, but apparently the sound quality was so awful that they decided to go back to England and start from the beginning. Still, there are many similarities between A Passion Play and that embryo, which was released almost twenty years later as the Château d’Isaster Tapes (sounds like the kind of pun I’d do, and this is not necessarily a compliment... nah, it’s ok), the first half of the album Nightcap. I’ll eventually get there, about ten posts later.

Back to the album. Musically, as I said, it doesn’t repeat itself, with the drawback (I personally don’t really mind) that there’s not a part that really gets stuck in your mind. The whole thing flows smoothly, with beautiful instrumental bits here and there, and Anderson’s flute rocking all over the place, as always. By the way, he also plays the sax here. Genius. I do miss a bit of Barre’s guitar sometimes, as he doesn’t really have any especially rocking solos... the album is more of a continuous team effort. Then there’s The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, which is in the middle of the album and is just absurd, but I love it for some reason. I guess I’m biased. Whatever, the video is fun, and the music’s actually still good. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond has some fun here narrating this short story.

If I had to choose a specific part of the album, I’d choose what appears in The Best of Jethro Tull as A Passion Play Edit #8, although it’s a tough decision. On the other hand, it looks like the band ran out of ideas in the end, as the last five minutes of the album are notably worse than the rest.

Although the lyrics are often unclear, it seems more or less obvious that A Passion Play talks, in short, about a man called Ronnie Pilgrim, who dies, goes to Heaven, doesn’t like it, goes to Hell, doesn’t like it and finally decides he just wants to live. Ok that was a lame way to put it, but you know what, if you want a really good analysis of the lyrics, go here:

On the top left corner you can find the different sections: introduction, the story, acts one, two, three and four (with The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles in the middle), and some more interesting information and opinions. Of course, this analysis is just an opinion, but I find it very convincing, and it shows the greatness of the lyrics.

One short example: probably my favourite moment of the album, lyrically speaking.

Here's the everlasting rub
Neither am I good nor bad
I’d give up my halo for a horn and
The horn for the hat I once had.

And here’s the explanation given on this website:

'There's the rub' - a Shakespearean phrase (from 'Hamlet') connoting the core of a dilemma. Ronnie, like most people, isn't purely good or bad, so doesn't really fit into either Heaven or Hell. The halo of a virtuous soul isn't appropriate, but nor are the horns of a 'damned' soul. In fact, he'd rather just be alive again, as he used to be - a plain old hat would be best.

I strongly recommend you to read the whole thing. It will take some time, but it’s really worth it and helps properly enjoy this album.

This is it for this post, I guess. In conclusion, I’d say this is an album most people don’t like at first (and many people don’t like it at second, third, fourth, two hundredth, either), but man can it grow on you! And, as always, here's the facebook page for this blog.


  1. I'm a fan of Passion Play - apart from The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles which I just don't like at all! It's the only section I fast forward!! In fact, until Ian Anderson went 'solo' it was the only Tull I'd consider fast-forwarding. Takes time to appreciate a number of the newer tracks (saw him live performing Homo Erraticus, and I'm still not raving about it)! Passion Play is otherwise GOOD - but I prefer Broadsword and the Beast, Aqualung, Heavy Horses, This Was, Live Bursting Out, and Crest of a Knave (personally MY favourite)!!!!

    1. I'm a fan of The Hare too, actually... I find it absurdly hilarious. I agree with you on Homo Erraticus though, I've given it a couple of listens and it still hasn't really grown on me. This may still change, of course, but I doubt it. I'm not a big fan of This Was... love the others you mentioned, though.

  2. I disagree with the author only in that there are definitely parts that get stuck in my head, a lot of them. And like commenter Aqualung, I like The Hare too, just because it is so absurd. As I was looking for my own glasses recently, I found myself singing over and over in my head "The lost spectacles were his own affair!". :-)

    Several decades ago, I went through a phase of listening to "Thick As a Brick" all the way through once a day, for several months! I've been almost getting to that point recently with Passion Play, but not quite, mainly due to lack of opportunity now (family, work, etc.).

    Although I'm not quite an Asperger's person, I think my musical appreciation sometimes tends that way, because one thing I love about this album and Thick, as well as prog. rock in general, is the patterns and rhythms, how they repeat and morph and interact with each other. They get stuck in my head and make me want to listen to them over and over.

    1. Some parts get stuck in my head too... but that's probably because we're die-hard fans, I'd say. For a casual listener, I think A Passion Play is very difficult to get into your head, maybe if it was a bit easier, it would have more fans. But then again, if it was easier, it would probably not be so great. Oh, commenter Aqualung is the author, by the way =)