Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jethro Tull 7: A Passion Play

Having convinced the world that their last record was an actual concept album and not merely a parody of one, Jethro Tull went whole hog with the formula and concocted one for real. A Passion Play followed the pattern of one song spread across two sides, only interrupted by a fairy tale. And instead of a newspaper, this time the packaging incorporated a program accompanying the alleged four-act stage performance. This helps change the impression that it’s just one song, as each of the acts is described with titles. However, these index points wouldn’t be fully utilized until the more elaborate CD reissues of recent years, so we’re not about to dissect each section with our usual drudgery.
If you listen long enough, read along with the lyrics and decipher the puns in the program, you might be able to follow the protagonist through his funeral, purgatory, limbo, Heaven, Hell and rebirth. Of course, any story on this scale needs music to carry it through, and A Passion Play has a lot to overcome. Having long abandoned blues, even folk takes a back seat to heavier prog, but the omnipresent flute and vocal tone of the auteur make it all too clear who this band is.
Heartbeats begin side one, which was apparently the law in 1973, giving way to an extended instrumental overture of sorts, Ian Anderson having added saxophones to his wind arsenal. The first song proper is mostly acoustic; “There was a rush along the Fulham Road” will be the most commonly repeated phrase throughout the next forty-odd minutes. The music turns harder as the side progresses, escalating through pointedly theatrical affectations, until another “hush along the Fulham Road” heralds a dance that closes the second act, to be interrupted by “The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”, narrated by bass player Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond in a broad, silly accent. (This originally ended side one with a “turn the page” sound effect, continuing on side two.)
The interlude is apparently just that, as the story proper picks up where it left off. The music is acoustic-based, but with an influx of synthesizers, making it heavier. A comparatively pastoral interlude is smacked aside by a trebly treated guitar riff, making things heavy yet again. The dénouement comes very close to the end of side two, and the show’s over.
A Passion Play is the most challenging Tull album yet, and the hardest yet to ingest. As there’s not really any “bad” music here, it’s enjoyable, but it can be exhausting trying to keep up with everything. In its current incarnation, with each of the formerly 22-minute sides split into smaller chunks, it’s a lot easier to revisit sections for familiarity. (The inevitable 21st-century upgrade added an extra disc of the sessions abandoned just before the Passion Play concept came together, plus DVD of surround sound mixes and video commissioned for the tour supporting the album.)

Jethro Tull A Passion Play (1973)—3
2013 An Extended Performance box set: same as 1973, plus 15 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

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