Features / Reviews

Album Reclamation Project: Jethro Tull, “A”

Album Reclamation Project

Welcome to the fifth installment of the Album Reclamation Project at Proglodytes!  Again, we will revisit a maligned Album of the Past and discuss whether it’s really as bad as all that.  As a reminder, we will be utilizing the soon to be copyrighted Official Proglodyte Dumpster Fire Scale.  In this episode we see yet further evidence that the 80’s were unkind to progressive rock legends.  Come, join us as we review Jethro Tull, A.  A reminder of our patented scale:

  1. Dumpster Inferno (For the truly terrible)
  2. Dumpster Conflagration
  3. Dumpster 3 Alarm
  4. Dumpster Controlled Burn
  5. Dumpster Embers (For the actually enjoyable)

Overview:

A is the 13th studio album by blues/folk/hard rock/prog outfit Jethro Tull.  The album was released in 1980— following a string of gold-selling albums with a very English folksy bent, to wit: Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses, and Stormwatch.  The album was originally intended to be an Ian Anderson solo project as Tull has just suffered the loss of bassist John Glasscock, who passed away from a congenital heart defect and drummer Barrie Barlow, who left in mourning for Glasscock and with dissatisfaction for the direction the band was heading.  When the record label determined that the album would be a Jethro Tull album, to help with flagging sales for the label, keyboardist John Evan and organist/arranger David Palmer were de facto fired from the group, leaving Anderson and Martin Barre as the only members of Jethro Tull to play on both Stormwatch and A.

Why People Hate It

Anderson has stated that he wanted to take the band in a different direction from the progressive folk rock of the previous albums.  To that end, A is an album thick with synthesizer and electric violin while the various acoustic instruments to which fans had become accustomed were scarce to be found.  The image of the band shifted dramatically as well, with the Robin Hood of Songs From the Wood being switched out for white jumpsuits and an album cover that looks vaguely like a still from Lost in Space.  Make a shift like that, and fans will object.  Oh, and some of the songs are terrible.

Let’s go track by track:

  1. “Crossfire”: Taking your band in a new direction is one thing, disco is another—and in 1980, borderline unforgivable.  Imagine if Jethro Tull had been responsible for Disco’s renaissance.  The spirit cringes as such a thought, yet, if this song doesn’t feature the distinctive bass/drum hippity-hop and backbeat of disco, then no song does.  In addition, the song lacks a truly distinctive hook, being caught somewhere between Staying Alive and, well, Jethro Tull.
  2. “Fylingdale Flyer”: A song about narrowly avoided nuclear holocaust fits well in the era of the Cold War, and the song is good.  The vocal and instrumental arrangements work and add enough complexity to the track to make it interesting, while it also possesses a respectable hook.
  3. “Working John, Working Joe”: Blues Traveler says that ‘The Hook brings you back’. This song proves that isn’t always the case.  This track is little other than hook, but it’s a pedestrian one at best, and while one can appreciate moving lyrical themes from the bucolic to the more modern and industrialized as being worthwhile, the lyrics here are somewhat wanting, meaning that one of Anderson’s dependable strengths isn’t present to buoy up this song that is far too long for what it is.
  4. “Black Sunday”: This song is the longest on the album, which is nice because it’s also the best.  One of the few tracks on A that displays how good the instrumentalists in the band are (Eddie Jobson on keys and Dave Pegg on bass aren’t exactly dime store musicians).  The lyrics effectively paint a scene of apocalypse before a turn at the end that reveals that this Black Sunday is the result, not of industrial collapse, but of the ending of a relationship.  This song is good enough to be on any album in the Tull catalogue.
  5. “Protect and Survive”: Another song reflecting Cold War themes of nuclear disaster, the track opens with the flute and bass playing a rapid figure together that sounds very much like something one would expect on a Tull album.  The instrumental timbre, however, is quite different, almost plastic sounding.  It probably worked in 1980 but today sounds quite dated, even more so than the rustic sounds of previous albums.  Where the song falls down, is the vocal line.  The lyrics are fine, but the melody is rather boring, and there is nothing in the arrangement to spruce it up.  It is utterly forgettable, which is about the worst thing a pop song can be.
  6. “Batteries not Included”: The lyrics to the song are winking and fun, but again, very little about the song grabs hold of the listener.
  7. “Uniform”: This song opens with a vaguely Middle-Eastern feel on Jobson’s violin, and the instrumental break at the midpoint of the song is very good, but nothing can fix the unfortunate refrain.  Uniforrrrm….Uniforrrm…  No, just no.
  8. “W.D. (Low Ratio)”: The epic tale of a man buying a truck from somebody named Jim.  No, really, that’s what it’s about.  Did I mention that the vehicle enjoys a low compression ratio?
  9. “The Pine Martin’s Jig”: It would seem that there was a leftover track from one of the earlier albums.  This instrumental track is what it claims to be: a fast-paced jig where the instruments all get to have a spot of fun.  A decent track, but it seems rather out of place on this album.
  10. “And Further On”: Another track that seems at first almost like a left-over from an earlier album. The lyrical themes initially seem to abandon modernist ideas—exchanging them for oceans, mossy banks and sunrises.  The track also possesses a melancholy that hearkens back to “Home” from Stormwatch.  Further investigation reveals, however, that the song is actually about the time period that may follow the era of the Cold War, where there is doubt as to whether anyone will be there, Further On.

 

Is It as Bad as All That?

It’s pretty bad.  There are two good tracks that stand out nicely and two other decent songs that don’t really fit the rest of the album.  It’s recognizable as a Tull album, because the flute and vocals are hard to miss, and the songwriting is recognizably Anderson’s, but weaker than many of the other Albums in the Tull repertoire.  One can appreciate the desire to play around with modern electronic sounds, but those sounds didn’t mingle well with the way Anderson writes his songs.

Proglodyte Dumpster Rating:    Dumpster Conflagration. A.K.A. ‘Congratulations, you’re not Love Beach.’

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