April 13th, 2012
At the urging of various associates, including Derek Schulman of Gentle Giant, Ian Anderson decided to make a follow-up to Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and it has arrived just in time for the ruby anniversary of its predecessor. The newspaper spoof that formed the cover for TAAB noted that the lyrics for that album were written by an 8-year old named Gerald Bostock. Forty years later Anderson looks at what happened to Gerald as he grew up, all the vocations he might have entered and choices he could have, but didn’t make.
Make no mistake, this is an Ian Anderson solo album and not the latest from Jethro Tull. Martin Barre apparently decided to take a pass. However, aside from guitarist Florian Opahle, everyone has toured under the Tull banner over the past several years. Although forty years on, Anderson chose to retain the sonic palette of TAAB and so there’s plenty of Hammond organ here courtesy of John O’Hara along with David Goodier on glockenspiel (and bass too) and the obligatory acoustic guitar and flute. The newspaper spoof that was the St. Cleve Chronicle is now stcleve.com.
“From a Pebble Thrown” opens like side 2 of TAAB with the swirling gusts of wind and those three staccato guitar/piano notes, the first of a handful of musical references to 1972. The song describes Gerald as “Twelve, going on sixteen”, not yet having attained majority but at the age where decisions can last a lifetime. “Pebbles Instrumental” spins us through time to might-have-beens where Anderson imagines the alternate lives our Gerald could have lived. First he is a banker making his millions through underhanded deals and then a homeless man who suffered sexual abuse and the cold indifference of his family. Anderson then imagines Gerald as a military man followed by a chorister at his local church. Or perhaps he became an ordinary man living in middle class obscurity. The final four songs find each incarnation of our protagonist looking back at his life, at where his choices have led him.
Musically TAAB2 sounds like you’d think it would. The acoustic elements wouldn’t sound out of place on Anderson’s solo albums The Secret Language of Birds and Rupi’s Dance while the heavier, rockier sections sound very much like latter-day Tull a la Dot Com but with a proggy patina circa 1972/3.
“Upper Sixth Loan Shark” introduces us to the young man who would become a mendacious denizen of Canary Wharf. Gentle acoustic guitar and flute with a bit of glockenspiel form an aural pillow for Gerald’s head while flourishes of electric guitar hint at his ambitions. On the other side of the spectrum, “Old School Song” appropriates the martial organ riff from TAAB (“I’ve come down from the upper class…”) and never lets go. It’s insistent beat churns underneath Gerald’s military mindset, discounting “mad poets” and “painters twee”.
Both “A Change of Horses” and “Adrift and Dumfounded” have been around a few years appearing in Tull and IA solo live sets and here they have been repurposed. The former finds Gerald in a pensive mood, contemplating the decades that have passed. Coming in at over eight minutes, the song leaves space for plenty of soloing. Anderson lays down plenty of flute but there’s also some great guitar-accordion sparing as well. “Adrift and Dumfounded” features some wonderful dynamics. Organ plays off acoustic guitar with electric lead joining the fray. There’s also some nice jazzy piano that helps makes this song a cousin to “Rocks on the Road”.
“Give Till It Hurts” is a Celtic-flavored acoustic ditty that is a worthy entry in the long line of such songs in the Tull catalogue. After years of more easy-going music, it’s nice to hear Anderson’s more aggressive flute playing in songs like “Shunt and Shuffle” as well as its slashing chords and thundering drums which harken back to “Locomotive Breath”. There’s simply more muscle on TAAB2 than on anything Anderson has done in years. “Adrift and Dumfounded” features some winding guitar from Opahle as Scott Hammond kicks the drums into overdrive while the choruses of “Power and Spirit” are downright fierce as Gerald the preacher fans the flames of religious fanaticism.
Starting in the mid-90s Anderson began to write songs about growing old – stuff like “At Last, Forever”, “Wicked Windows”, and “The Dog-Ear Years”. That trend continues here but I appreciate how this theme is mixed in with some social commentary. There’s nothing heavy-handed but you’ve got the homeless, greedy preachers fleecing their flocks, and even greedier bankers. Just as the music brings the slow and the fast, the electric and the acoustic together, the lyrics are a wonderful mix of story-telling, subtle finger-wagging, and reflection on years gone by.
TAAB2 will no doubt suffer because of comparisons to it predecessor but IA brought this on with the concept, the title, and the sporadic references to classic Tull tunes. This is too bad because it’s an album worthy in its own right. TAAB2 may see the world through the eyes of a man in his mid-60s but Ian Anderson is rocking again.