Jethro Tull – Aqualung
Released March 19th, 1971 on Reprise Records
Produced by Ian Anderson and Terry Ellis
Peaked at #7 US, #4 UK
“Hymn 43” (#91 US)
“Locomotive Breath” (#62 US)
Jethro Tull’s fourth album is not a concept album. Oh sure, you’ve been told by your family, friends, and co-workers for fifty years that Aqualung is a concept album. What about the cover of the album, with the shabby homeless-looking man juxtaposed with the “Spend Christmas Abroad” poster next to him? What about the thumbnail sketch of a homeless lecher that lurks beneath the heavy riffing of the title track? He shows up in “Cross-Eyed Mary”, too, alongside a schoolgirl prostitute and her custom. Surely this means there is some overarching theme throughout? It’s all very dour and doubtful of god and the efficacy of being able to care for your fellow man, but that’s just where Ian Anderson’s head was at when he and the rest of the band wrote it in 1970. The vibe comes from Anderson’s then-wife Jennie, whose photos of homeless people along the Thames River gave birth to an overall feeling, if not a coherent set of people and stories. The two of them wrote “Aqualung”, and while the character of Aqualung shows up again in “Cross-Eyed Mary”, that’s as far as it goes. Most of the rest of the album deals with God and the question of Their existence; included as well is a short soft-shoe shuffle that gives voice to Anderson’s concerns about his father’s care at the hands of his nurses, and whether or not his own semi-fame played a role in getting his father better treatment than it would have had he been someone else. The second half nails home Anderson’s doubts about organized religion several times. “My God” criticizes the uses humanity puts God to, with the bloody Church of England inviting him around the vicarage for tea; “Hymn 43” continues this theme, calling on Jesus to save Himself from those who would use him to kill others; “Wind-Up” points the finger at those for whom the ritual and trappings of religion are the religion themselves.
It’s not a concept album though, the band insists. In fact, the follow-up to Aqualung, 1973’s stone classic Thick As A Brick, was written to be as obviously an over-the-top concept album as they could imagine, to the point where the album was packaged with an entire falsified small-town newspaper that explained the entire story in its jaunty garden-fete articles. Aqualung wasn’t on that level of conceptual thinking, as it turns out. It deals with Anderson’s questioning of the church amidst poverty and death, but does that rise to the level of a concept album? Of course it does, don’t listen to the band. We all bat around the death of the author for a reason, after all.
The album, which would cement the band’s fortunes as a prog act of note, came about at a time of transition for them. After a tour of America, fleet-fingered jazz bassist Glenn Cornick was booted from the band; the rest of them were rather insular, private individuals and Cornick’s more overt love of partying on tour was at odds with their preferences. In came Jeffrey Hammond, an old friend of Anderson’s who would play with the band until 1975. John Evan, who had played keyboards on some of the songs on 1970’s Benefit, stepped up his role as well, adding texture throughout the recordings. It would also be the last album recorded with original Tull drummer Clive Bunker; he would retire from music not long after. The band got to be one of the first to record at Island Records’ brand-new studio in London, although Anderson described the process as cold, with too much echo. At the time there were two studios in the complex, one large and the other smaller. Jethro Tull got the larger studio; at the same time, in the smaller studio, Led Zeppelin was recording what would later be released as their legendary untitled fourth album.
Some of Aqualung doesn’t age all that well. “Cross-Eyed Mary”, despite it’s classic Seventies rock ‘n’ roll swagger, is an unsettlingly jaunty depiction of childhood sexual abuse (depending on how old the “schoolgirl” Anderson is singing about is, I suppose). “Locomotive Breath” is a bit too Malthusian in its framework; someone really should have told Anderson that we have enough resources if we distribute them properly and that the population explosion isn’t the exact problem. His thoughts on God tend to be pretty timeless, though, and the riff from the title track is one of the ten best riffs rock ‘n’ roll ever came up with.