Ian Anderson seems to get his knickers in a twist if someone refers to Aqualung as a concept album. After reading various comments he’s made over the years, I think what he’s talking about is intention; while Aqualung clearly has themes that weave together into a remarkable tapestry, those themes came together by good fortune rather than deliberate intent.
Concept album or not, and despite the challenges of working in a “horrible, cold echoey” studio, Aqualung is one of the great albums of all-time, a work of unusual depth, power and intensity. The lyrics are clearer and stronger than on any other Tull album, and the musicianship of Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, John Evan and Clive Bunker is simply extraordinary.
Yes, I specifically left out Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, one of the most inept bass players in history. Fortunately, they kept the bass parts on Aqualung limited to simple rhythm support so the others could strut their stuff.
The two main themes of Aqualung are the human condition (side one) and religion (side two). The religious theme on side is much clearer and more deliberate. Side one is a series of portraits: two of people in the human underworld; one of Ian Anderson waiting for a train and musing on a visit to his father in the hospital; another of people seen on a stroll through Hampstead Heath; one a scene in the daily life of a couple; and the other of a working class lout. It is the method (portraiture) that provides the unity, as opposed to any common theme or message. The unification of the two sides is more inferred (How can a God allow people like Aqualung and Cross-Eyed Mary to live such miserable existences?) or implied (the line, “We are our own saviors” in “Wond’ring Aloud”).
The opening portrait, “Aqualung,” is unapologetically graphic, searing into the consciousness:
Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent,
Snot running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes
The first verse lyrics are backed up by exceptionally strong, no-bullshit power from the band. This background shifts starkly into an acoustic segment that slowly builds into a segment of intense urgency. One of the everlasting strengths of “Aqualung” is this shifting arrangement that constantly keeps the listener immersed in the experience. The fourth segment is Martin Barre’s brilliant solo, a piece that has such a strong counter-melody that I’ve often found myself humming the notes when the song slips into consciousness. Segment five is another quiet acoustic piece that arrives in shocking contrast to Martin’s six-string explosion. The song wraps up with a return to the first verse, an ironically triumphant conclusion indeed. The triumph is in the exceptional structure that makes the repetition of the first verse a fitting conclusion to this incredible song.
Tull albums are usually pretty high on the intensity scale, and Aqualung is the most consistently intense of all. After the powerful opening number, there’s absolutely no let-up when we move to “Cross-Eyed Mary.” Another exceptionally well-arranged song, the band frigging rocks here: Ian’s flute is enthusiastic, John Evan adds some fabulous touches, Martin does his usual thing and Clive Bunker delivers a super performance on the skins. The intro, nearly a minute long, transitions beautifully with an emphatic trill from the flute. Like “Aqualung,” the song deals with the underclass (a schoolgirl hooker) and the lyrics are appropriately graphic and earthy.
“Cheap Day Return” is a short vignette of Ian waiting for a train to take him to the place where his ill father resides while musing on the mundane (“Brush away the cigarette ash that’s falling down your pants”) and the anxiety-provoking (“And you sadly wonder, does the nurse treat your old man the way she sh-should?”) Ian Anderson’s use of a third-person narrative makes this little song a powerful bit of poetry; had he written it in first-person, the perspective might have been far too contaminated by emotion.
“Mother Goose” is a precursor to the “heavy wood” sound that Tull would move to in later years, a semi-surrealistic stroll through a city park full of strong imagery and clever lines. “Wond’ring Aloud” is a lovely reflection on closeness; the more romantically ideal passages that open the song are made even stronger by the all-too human act of spilling toast crumbs on the bed where the couple had been locked in sweet embrace moments before. Side one ends with the drunken British machismo of “Up to Me,” a song where the narrator blindly looks for some excuse to kick someone’s ass in order to maintain some sense of comparative worth.
The religion side, entitled “My God” in sync with the opening number, deals primarily with how organized religion has destroyed the human connection to God (or spirituality, if you prefer), in complete reversal of its alleged intention. It is primarily an exposure of the eternal hypocrisy of the religious.
I actually heard a live version of the song “My God” years ago on a crappy bootleg version of one of their concerts that must have taken place after Benefit but before Aqualung. The device the idiot used to make the illegal recording must have been malfunctioning, because it sounded like a 45 played at 33 1/3. Regardless, I still vividly remember two things about the song. One was the line “and the graven image you-know-who” was sung “and the graven image Catholic.” I’m glad Ian decided to change it. The other was the first verse, as memorable a piece of songwriting as there ever was:
People what have you done?
Locked him in his golden cage,
Made him bend to your religion,
Him resurrected from the grave.
He is the God of nothing if that’s all that you can see.
You are the God of everything: he’s inside you and me.
As a young teen at the time, this validated what I’d always thought about organized religion and made me a committed Tull fan for life.
“Hymn 43” is a kick ass rocker that somehow turned into the one single off the album (it’s hard to imagine this put-down of the absurdity of religious zealots on American Top 40 radio). The killer line, “If Jesus saves, well, he better save himself” rings true every time I listen to Republican politicians drone on and on about their faith. “Slipstream” is another lovely small song a la “Cheap Day Return,” dealing with the odd pairing of Christianity and wealth, something that makes as much sense as a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. Who said that, anyway?
Certainly the piéce de resistance of the album is “Locomotive Breath,” an extraordinary song about man being ripped from the crutch of faith by modern progress and science. The locomotive was the symbol of destructive progress in Victorian England, and it was during that time that “Old Charlie” (Darwin) “stole the handle” with his theory of evolution. At least that’s my interpretation; you’re free to have your own.
The song would have been memorable if it had been recorded simply with Ian Anderson on acoustic guitar, but what makes it a masterpiece is the amazing arrangement. The opening passage is pure genius. It begins with John Evan playing a romantic-classical passage that slowly transforms into Gershwinesque jazz . . . at which point we hear Martin’s electric guitar play a soft and highly seductive riff. The two threads (one of innocence, one of experience, in Blakean terms) then play together for a short while until the raw, modern, destructive sound of distorted electric guitar simply overwhelms the natural sound of the piano. The passage serves as a mini-version of the song’s narrative: simple man destroyed by something he can neither explain nor deny.
The song then explodes into the driving, syncopated rhythm of the main passage, an intensely exciting piece of music accentuated by Martin’s moves between cut and scream and Clive Bunker’s tight drumming. Of all the songs in my library, “Locomotive Breath” is the one I find myself playing back-to-back most often. I listen to it in sheer amazement every time, then I want to go back and try to pick up the endless subtleties that make it a great piece of music.
“Locomotive Breath” would be difficult to follow in any case, but Tull hit a grand slam with “Wind-Up.” This story of religious indoctrination in the school system is exquisitely sung, beautifully arranged and gives us enough Martin Barre to satisfy what by now has become an addictive craving. Ian Anderson sings the song with the perfect combination of puckish humor in the quiet passages and deep disgust in the up-tempo middle, where my favorite lines reside:
How d’ya dare to tell me that I’m my father’s son, when that was just an accident at birth?
I’d rather look around me, compose a better song, ’cause that’s an honest measure of my worth,
In your pomp and all your glory, you’re a poorer man than me
As you lick the boots of death, born out of fear.
As we fade out on the plaintive line, “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays,” we have to take a long breath and reflect on the entire experience of Aqualung. We’ve taken a deep dive into ugly human reality and the equally ugly hypocrisy of organized religion. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve reflected. Despite the enormity of the problems Ian Anderson has described, we feel good at the end of the experience, as we do with all art that manages to cut through the much to reveal simple truths. Aqualung ends in hope, not despair, and hope makes us feel good.
And we also feel good because on Aqualung, more than on any of their other albums, Tull kicks fucking ass.