Tull fans who follow this blog have probably wondered what the hell has taken this broad so long to get around to Heavy Horses. Ignoring the middle piece of the “folk-rock trilogy” that began with Songs from the Wood and ended with Stormwatch (both of which I’ve reviewed) leaves an obvious hole in my Tull narrative. The Heavy Horses tour also gave us Tull’s first live album (Bursting Out), so the album has added significance in Tull lore.
Well, here we are, and I’ll use a famous quote to explain my reluctance to engage with Heavy Horses.
“I yam what I am.”
Truth is, I have a hard time relating to the country farm environment depicted in some of the songs in Heavy Horses. I’m a city girl. I’ve lived in cities for most of my life. I feel more comfortable in an urban milieu. I’ll take a sidewalk over a forest path or a furrow anytime.
I’m glad Mother Nature is there. I just don’t want to hang out with her. You can read the introduction to my review of Woodstock to learn more about the trauma that bitch inflicted on me at a very tender age.
As for farms . . . I’ve only been to a farm once in my life (not counting vineyards). As a consequence of that experience, my brain has identified farms as smelly places that trigger my allergies and has forbidden me from coming within ten miles of a barn or silo. Old MacDonald can bring his wares to the farmer’s market and allow me to shop with my feet firmly planted on brick or concrete.
Many of the characters in Heavy Horses are animals—mostly farm animals or animals that have become acclimatized to farm dynamics. Mice are featured in two songs (in one a victim; in the other a hero of sorts). We also have a murderous cat, a scarcely domesticated hound dog, a gaggle of moths, a team of draft horses and a rooster in the role of meteorologist. I love animals, especially those animals who sit on my lap and give me little kisses and who obey the order to shut up and leave mommy alone when she’s fucking. None of the animals on Heavy Horses meet those qualifications, but overall, I consider the animals a plus.
Biases and idiosyncracies confessed, it’s time for the review!
Sharp-eyed readers may have already noticed that the cover depicted here differs slightly from the original release. Down at the bottom you’ll see the words “The original 1978 album remixed in stereo by Steven Wilson.” While I generally prefer to review the original recording without enhancement or improvement (if available) and try to avoid promoting “deluxe editions” that cost more and often fail to deliver much in the way of “deluxe,” I strongly recommend Steven Wilson’s remix. Wilson has remixed and remastered several Tull albums, but his work on Heavy Horsesqualifies as exceptional.
Unfortunately, Wilson couldn’t do much with Ian Anderson’s less-than-stellar vocals, the sound of a voice run ragged by overuse, a condition that would become more serious during the Under Wraps tour in the 1980’s. Sometimes the roughness works in the context of a song; in other places I miss the vibrato he commanded in songs like “Wond’ring Aloud” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day.” As for the rest of the band, I would label their performances as spirited and tight, with the proviso that you can never have enough Martin Barre on a Tull record.
“And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps” seems a curious opener, but if you look through the playlist, there really isn’t a signature opening song in the bunch. This is one of those songs that only Jethro Tull could have created, with its 3/4 time signature cleverly disguised by splashes of flute, guitar and bass that fall on and off the beat. The clarity of Wilson’s remix allows you to follow any disparate part you choose, and all I can say is I would have loved to have been in the studio when they worked out all the details—the arrangement is a marvelous creation. As for the subject matter, I think Ian Anderson did a fine job depicting the contrary nature of a cat (“Savage bed foot warmer/Of purest feline ancestry”) and (“From warm milk on a lazy day/To dawn patrol of hungry hate”). The contrary nature of the feline is exactly why I steadfastly refuse to own a cat.
They’re too much like me.
The song also reminds us of another unpleasant aspect of nature: it thrives on the cycle of life and death. The cat may be “domesticated,” but its animal instincts remain: “Eats but one in every ten/Leaves the others on the mat.” If you scolded and shook your finger at the cat when he dropped off his prey on your front porch—“Bad cat—no kill mice!”—the cat would give you one of those laser-focused feline stares that says, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Ian Anderson clearly accepts this gruesome truth that natural survival entails killing; I cry whenever I watch one of those nature shows where the lions eat the gazelles. “That’s horrifying,” I might remark . . . while taking another bite out of my cheeseburger.
My hypocrisy regarding nature is showing.
“Acres Wild” is an Ian Anderson love letter to his relatively recent bride, offering her the opportunity to make whoopee in both rural and urban environments. The first verse anticipates the couple’s purchase of the Strathaird Estate on the Isle of Skye (the “Winged Isle”); the second depicts a drearier environment in an unnamed U. K. city, most likely London. While the offer may have been tempting to Shona Anderson, I don’t find “deep brown rivers that slither darkly” a particularly romantic image (“slither darkly” calls up images of snakes crawling all over my naked body), and the song pales in comparison to the delightfully kinky “Hunting Girl” and darkly erotic “Velvet Green” on Songs from the Wood. That said, the Steven Wilson remix manages to give the song some life, largely by cranking up the volume on John Glascock’s outstanding bass performance.
Steven Wilson’s greatest contribution has to be his work on the instrumental passages in “No Lullaby.” I suggest that readers head over to YouTube, find both the original and Steven Wilson versions of the song, and compare the two renditions of the introductory passage. Martin’s superb lead solo is brighter and cleaner, Glascock’s bass features more punch and Barriemore Barlow’s drums are rescued from the muddiness of the original. Martin’s extended solo in the middle of the piece also makes me very happy. As for the song proper . . . ugh. It’s one thing to suffer from parental paranoia (all good parents have a tendency towards over-protectiveness), but this is a bit over the top:
Keep your eyes open
And prick up your ears
Rehearse your loudest cry.
There’s folk out there
Who would do you harm
So I’ll sing you no lullaby.
There’s a lock on the window;
There’s a chain on the door:
A big dog in the hall.
But there’s dragons and beasties
Out there in the night
To snatch you if you fall.
Even if a baby can’t understand the language, they can feel the vibes, so I hope Ian didn’t actually sing this song to baby James or encourage him to use his rattle to develop his swordsmanship.
“Moths” is a lyrical mess that begins with trite imagery and moves steadily in the direction of unintelligibility. An attempt to liven up the proceedings with a sudden key change falls flat, and Ian’s vocal problems are on full display here, his sandpapery voice rather grating in contrast to the gentle arrangement. I do like the use of truncated measures, and as I’ve said before, I don’t think Tull gets enough credit for their rhythmic excellence.
The milieu shifts to urban with the song “Journeyman,” a word that originally meant “a worker, skilled in a given building trade or craft, who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship qualification” but now is generally used to describe a crappy relief pitcher assigned to mop-up duty. Ian absconds the term and assigns it to the drone on his daily commute. Unlike the muddled poetry of “Moths,” Ian combines concrete imagery and wit to offer us a vivid picture of modern meaninglessness:
Sliding through Victorian tunnels
Where green moss oozes from the pores.
Dull echoes from the wet embankments
Battlefield allotments. Fresh open sores.
In late-night commuter madness
Double-locked black briefcase on the floor,
Like a faithful dog with master
Sleeping in the draught beside the carriage door.
To each Journeyman his own home-coming
Cold supper nearing with each station stop.
Frosty flakes on empty platforms
Fireside slippers waiting. Flip. Flop.
Sadly, our journeyman doesn’t have time to “stop for tea at Gerard’s Cross,” a rail stop considered a bit posher than most. The band is nice and tight here, engaging in several mini stop-time moments to accentuate punch lines.
“Rover” explores the ways and mores of canines in an arrangement that could have fit nicely into the mix on Songs from the Wood. Cats will be cats and dogs will be dogs and there’s hardly anything a dog loves better than to escape the leash and taste a precious moment of blessed freedom:
The long road is a rainbow and the pot of gold lies there.
So slip the chain and I’m off again
You’ll find me everywhere.
‘Cause I’m a Rover.
Heavy Horses is an album of exceptionally strong introductions, and “Rover” features one of my favorites with its perfectly-executed flurry of notes coming at you from all instruments in all directions. Ian and the band deserve lots of credit for turning a minor key song into something joyful and full of life. I also love Ian’s insight into the charmingly manipulative ways of the species—the couplet “I’m simple in my sadness/Resourceful in remorse” is brilliant, painfully true poetic economy.
My favorite song on Heavy Horses features Ian Anderson taking tea with “one brown mouse sitting in a cage.” Following another fabulous introduction featuring Ian’s stereo acoustic guitars, we hear Ian chatting at his furry companion in what seems to be a daily ritual:
Smile your little smile take some tea with me awhile.
Brush away that black cloud from your shoulder.
Twitch your whiskers. Feel that you’re really real.
Another tea-time another day older.
Meanwhile, in the background, a slow build begins with the introduction of vocal harmony, John Glascock shifting from root note bass to more complex patterns, the appearance of light orchestration and a very gentle touch on Barriemore’s drum kit. After building to a peak, Barlow signals a shift with a transitional fill, cueing Martin to let it rip with distortion-tinged power chords and a nice little run. This delightful bridge contains the essence of the relationship between man and mouse:
Do you wonder if I really care for you,
Am I just the company you keep?
Which one of us exercises on the old treadmill,
Who hides his head, pretending to sleep?
Cursed with our anthropomorphic bias, I don’t really know if it’s possible for a human to truly read an animal’s thoughts or accurately empathize with an animal’s feelings. Ian finds an ironic connection in the treadmill, a humble observation that raises valid doubts concerning human superiority. “One Brown Mouse” is one of Tull’s most delightful and most human creations, a song guaranteed to lift that black cloud from your shoulder.
It’s hard for me to evaluate the title track, since I have little interest in horses and couldn’t tell a fetlock from a feather. While Ian celebrates the noble breeds who work the land, I find myself wondering whether or not the horses really like doing the shitty work humans have bred them to perform. The most controversial passage ties the horses to our overdependence on the oil that feeds the tractors and, by extension, our overdependence on technology itself:
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
And the nights are seen to draw colder
They’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power
Your noble grace and your bearing
And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
In the wake of the deep plough, sharing
Putting aside the nostalgic, anthropomorphic projections, I have to say that while I think Ian’s desire for a life that maintains our connection with Mother Nature is admirable (and getting rid of fossil fuels even more so), he ignores the simple fact that returning to the horse and plow would leave billions of people starving on our overpopulated planet. That’s misplaced nostalgia, not a helpful solution.
As for the music, though the band executes their parts with the usual excellence, the transition from verse to chorus feels rather awkward and the shift to the instrumental section featuring Darryl Way’s violin solo equally so. I also think the violin gets buried in the mix, something not corrected by the Wilson remix.
The album ends with a generally uninteresting appeal to an inanimate object, a “Weathercock,” to be specific. I have no problem talking to animals or even plants but conversing with a metal rooster is too much for this gal. What I do like in this song is Ian’s mandolin work, reminding me how much I admire his ability to make any instrument he touches come alive.
Despite my experiential limitations, I still admire the hell out of Ian Anderson for sticking to the folk-rock path during a period when punks, post-punks and new wave artists were all the rage. Heavy Horses shows all the signs of a very stubborn artist and a band fully committed to the craft. Though I’m generally uncomfortable with nostalgic yearnings, the state of music today has led me to fully embrace nostalgia honoring displays of artistic commitment and excellent musicianship like Heavy Horses.
And that’s not “misplaced nostalgia.” That’s reality.