And with one of the most distinctive riffs of the decade, Jethro Tull arrives with the sound most often associated with them. Aqualung puts the band squarely in the “heavy” category, thanks to the FM radio staples most often played from the album. For that reason, it’s also likely responsible for why people avoid Jethro Tull.
Side one is subtitled “Aqualung”, for reasons that will soon be apparent. That title track bursts with zero subtlety, perfectly capturing the wretched state of the guy on the cover, slowing down for the hushed acoustic mid-section to give him a little sympathy. He’s the first of several portraits, and turns up again in “Cross-Eyed Mary”, another heavy tune disguised by an ornate flute-and-Mellotron intro, with a snotty vocal fitting the tale of a young trollop. Just when we think it’s going to be all loud, three slices of minstrel folk follow: the all-too brief “Cheap Day Return”, which wryly balances the price of stardom with the welfare of one’s parents; the jaunty, surrealistic “Mother Goose”; and the more introspective “Wond’ring Aloud”, with its delivery and subtle strings bringing to mind Cat Stevens, and in a good way. “Up To Me” adds another heavy riff, sung by a lower-class lout accompanied by the sniggers of pub patrons.
Ian Anderson can swear all he wants that it’s not a concept album decrying organized religion, but the gothic typeface, faux-scripture on the back cover, and the fact that side two is called “My God” all combine to suggest that he’s an axe to grind. The lengthy, spooky track of the same name, wanders from acoustic lament to faster riffing, with even a Gregorian-sounding middle section under an archetypal flute solo. “Hymn 43” gets good and loud again, well-constructed and tight little riffs a-plenty. “Slipstream” fills a similar brief role as “Cheap Day Return”, ending nearly as fast as it begins, only with nightmare strings to see it out. The solo piano intro to “Locomotive Breath” is arguably the highlight of the album, the rest of the song being more along the lines of the hapless losers on side one. And “Wind-Up” is aptly titled; it ends the album, builds from quiet to loud, and is used literally in the verse. The first half is almost a conventional, rousing anthem, but once Martin Barre joins in, it’s taken in that heavy direction again before ending quietly.
Besides being one of the more pious records of the era, there’s not much of their early blues sound on Aqualung. This could possibly be because the band members changed yet again: Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond graduated from repeatedly namechecked friend to bass player, and John Evan joined full-time on keyboards, adding prominent piano and organ to the mix. If you only know the tunes from the radio, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the breadth of styles and moods here. It turns out they weren’t always loud and weird; they just acted that way.
Jethro Tull Aqualung (1971)—3½