Jethro Tull: Redefining the Concept Album

Mar 13th, 2015 | By | Category: Canon Fodder, Reviews

thickasabrick(The following review is part 3 of 5 in a series of essential progressive rock albums.)

Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick

It was the 4th of July, 1972, and I was itching to buy some new albums. The local shop where I bought records was closed for the holiday but I really wanted to go to an independent head shop that I kept hearing advertise on the radio. The shop was too far away for me to walk or bike to and I wasn’t old enough to drive. My solution was to persuade my older brother into giving me a ride to the shop. He wasn’t all that keen on doing so but with my parents approving the use of the car I think he seized on the opportunity to get behind the wheel. I bought two albums that day: Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles Live! and Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick. The Santana/Miles record was pretty good with some nice funky and bluesy rock. It was relatively satisfying. Thick As A Brick, on the other hand, was an entirely different beast. Tull’s previous album, Aqualung, struck a strong chord in me and appealed to my teenage sensibilities. Its themes of religious hypocrisy mirrored my own questioning of religious institutions. It was an album that could be heavy yet still beautifully blended elements of folk, and I loved Ian Anderson’s voice. Thick As A Brick, on the other hand, demonstrated that a rock album could be so much more than a collection of songs. It could make a cohesive statement over the course of an entire album — a concept. Unlike concept albums before it, for example: Tommy, S.F. Sorrow, or Arthur (or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), Thick As A Brick borrowed a page out of classical music and conceived of a concept around a single track. And that’s not all; from a marketing point of view, the band greatly expanded on what could be done with an album’s cover art.

While bands like Yes and Genesis were demonstrating that entire sides of an album could contain just one track, Jethro Tull upped the ante and made both sides one complete song. The biggest obstacle in composing one long track is to avoid creating a lot of filler in order to connect segments. At this point in their career Jethro Tull was becoming an extremely accomplished group. For a single piece of music that was nearly 45-minutes long they were amazingly successful. There is no superfluous music added and each segment flows smoothly from one part to another. Even the clumsy moment when the album has to be flipped over the band manages to keep it fluid. At the end of side 1 a steady staccato beat in unison with lots of echo bounces between channels before it fades out and degenerates into white noise. Side 2 then starts with a fade up of oscillating winds mixed with some improvised flute while in the distance the unison line at the end of side 1 is heard again, though now with even more reverb, only to have the the band quickly switch gears. Here they return to the segment that followed the initial acoustic movement begun on side 1. The clever ways they maneuver between segments, the power with which they attack, and the way they can pull back and show restraint combine to make this an absolute killer album.

While one continuous piece of music suggests the band was looking toward classical music for structural references, the band also kept an eye on traditional English folk music. There are beautiful passages of organ, piano, acoustic guitar, flute and vocals that gorgeously evoke gentle pastoral settings — perhaps none more so than the enchanting primary melody played on flute that opens the piece and recurs throughout. Anderson’s flute playing and vocals are masterful as are guitarist Martin Barre and organist John Evans. Really the album is a showcase for the entire band. It’s gripping, powerful and dynamic. As a follow up to the hugely popular Aqualung, the band succeeded in creating something truly different, something enormously ambitious, and extremely impressive.

Anderson has said that he created Thick As A Brick in response to the insistence of critics and fans of calling Aqualung a concept album. He maintains that Aqualung was never a concept album. Tired of hearing it constantly referred to as such, he decided to make a “parody” of a concept album — thus Thick As A Brick was conceived. Whether Aqualung was a concept album, or Thick As A Brick a “parody” of a concept album, matters little to me. What does matter is the power of the music, and on that score Jethro Tull succeeded greatly.

No discussion of this album would seem complete without mention of the innovative cover art used. The concept of the album revolves around a controversial award winning poem called Thick As A Brick written by a fictional 8-year-old boy genius. The cover art depicts a local paper covering the boy and the poem. What makes the art most special is that the cover actually folds out and opens like a real paper with several pages inside. It also features additional stories of local news and sports. One of the stories reviews Jethro Tull’s latest album that uses the boy genius’s poem as the lyrics for their new album. The cost to the label to make this cover had to far exceed the budget and I’ve no idea how the band convinced them to do it. But I’m sure glad they did. It was brilliant. It seemed like something right out of Monty Python. I spent hours reading and re-reading the paper while listening to the music. I recently indulged in that same activity before writing this piece and it still continues to bring a smile to my face for its distinctly British humor and the magnificent music housed within the paper.

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One Comment to “Jethro Tull: Redefining the Concept Album”

  1. Mike Dixon says:

    Great and accurate review! A feature that has always stood out to me about this album are the numerous crescendos and sudden breaks that happen throughout.
    It flows in and out of a whimsical and whispery melody into a droning and pounding march. And with this carousel of sound going round in your headphones the lyrics somehow remain at the forefront and you find yourself humming the lines over and over again “Do you believe in the day?”

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