Monks, mellotrons, and bearded ladies. Who’d have ever thought?
Aqualung was the sort of album that could only have come out of Merry Old England. Jethro Tull itself originally began life as a blues-rock band with heavy folk leanings, however by 1970, they began to adopt a far more serious stance both in sound and lyrical content. Their electrifying performance at 1970’s Isle Of Wight Festival was all the proof anyone needed that the group were seemingly following in the footsteps of hard-rock behemoths The Who and Led Zeppelin.
Aqualung was Tull’s very first attempt at recording a concept album proper, albeit one which managed to combine two concepts into one, that being the division between God and religion. Such a theme would, in the hands of any other band, seem preposterous, pretentious even. But Jethro Tull had the musical dexterity and lyrical deftness to actually make the whole thing work (or the majority of it at least).
Like The Who, Tull (or Ian Anderson rather) often wrote lyrics that were more on the perverse side of things, a quality unique to the collective English wit, and quite the reverse to what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic.
Anderson, increasingly inspired by Roy Harper, spent more time on acoustic guitar, and whenever alone in the studio, while not only writing songs, also overdubbed numerous other instruments as well. The title track moves effortlessly from Martin Barre’s heavy guitar through to something far gentler, before stepping on the rock accelerator during the final part.
The Dickensian “Cross-Eyed Mary” is a fine blend of blues, rock, and pastoral British Isles folk, while on “Mother Goose” Anderson gets into medieval minstrel mode, followed by “Wond’ring Aloud,” another Anderson folk tune, only this time backed by a modest string section. “Up To Me” is probably about the closest thing to funk that any Elizabethan troubadour was capable of, and gives the listener a sense that not all much had changed in society since the days of Marlowe and Shakespeare.
The topic of organised religion is dealt with on side two, beginning with “My God,” where for over seven minutes the song eccentrically fluctuates between heavy riffing, jazzy flute solos, and a chorus of medieval monks, then “Hymn 43,” a religious treatise more prog-rock than gospel, although pianist John Evans would probably not seem out of place in a southern church on the brief “Slipstream.” The glam-folk of “Locomotive Breath” theatrically makes way for the final number “Wind Up,” another mini-epic concerned with the hypocrisy of the English Church, and maybe even aspects of English society in general.
It perhaps sums up the concept best – that the act of finding truth within us, be it God or otherwise, ought not be dictated by institutions upon any individual, for to do so would be a form of spiritual as well as intellectual slavery.
Ultimately, Aqualung remains a carefully conceived document of disparate musical elements, both old and new. And despite some religious protestations in America at the time, the LP became a hit, launching Elizabethan-rock across the world, and turning Jethro Tull into an (almost) household name in the process.