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Jethro Tull - A Passion Play CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

4.02 | 1412 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
3 stars How do you live up to Aqualung, a nearly perfect album? You create Thick as a Brick, a perfect album. And, how do you live up to a perfect album? You don't...but you try. Unfortunately for Jethro Ian, his attempt wasn't all that good, and A Passion Play does not go on to become one of my favorite Tull albums.

It is not, however, my least favorite album either. Arguably the most misunderstood album in Tull history, Play is over-loved by fans and over-hated by critics. I like to think of myself right in the middle. When I say good but not essential, that's exactly what I mean.

What restrains the album is probably not what you think; at least, it wasn't what I thought at first. Initially I thought the album suffered from lack of time to prep and record, but Thick was also created very quickly. Alternatively, I thought it was a lack of humor; I had heard that Play was very dark. And it is dark...sort of. Actually, it's not dark at all. Lighter than Thick, lighter than Warchild even. I mean, the subject matter, life and death and all that, is pretty heavy, but it's just performed in such a toss off way. Besides, how can any album with the line "Flee the icy Lucifer, oh he's an awful fellow" be dark?

Nope, my problem with Play is two things: first, I find it to be fairly unmemorable and un-diverse. Secondly, it's a total sell out. Which is not to say it's not a progressive nightmare, it still is. In fact, it's Tull's most "progressive" work. But it's still a sell out.

We open with the amusing, and somewhat deceptive, overture. It's sorta folksy and bouncy, and reveals the introduction of our newest instrument, the saxophone! How is Ian's sax? Well it's...not bad. It's not fantastic either, instead of playing it like a real cool jazzy dude, Ian plays it like a merry medieval instrument.

This fades into some acoustic musings from Ian (by the way, if you have never researched Jethro Tull at all, the plot of Passion Play is a young man's travels through the afterlife. 'nuff said). It really doesn't stick with me because I can't remember any of it. Oh well. That turns into a bit of saxaphonery with some keyboards mixed in for good measure. Oh, by the way, do you like trading acoustics off with sax/keyboard noodling? You do?!? Oh good! Then this album is for you, because that's all that's on it!

Anyway, this goes on for a while. There are little snatches of possibility (a violent sax solo, some church organ), but nothing sticks around long enough to become anything. "Roll up, roll down?" What came first, the Play or Brain Salad Surgery? A word about the lyrics, they're great ("here's your ID, ideal for identifying," the infamous "ice cream lady"). They're not backed with particularly memorable melodies, which would be okay if I still had the lyrics sheet, but I lost my liner notes. Getting back to the review...

We continue with some more samey sounding stuff. Occasionally a guitar pops in here and there, and there's one decent flute solo, but all in all, doesn't click. A fairly popular bit of noise is called "Lover of the Black and White." It's repetitive and sounds suspiciously like the movement we just got out of, but you can at least headbang to it. It also contains some great spoken bits from John Evan and Jeffrey.

We gradually return to the overture theme. This eventually morphs into "The Hare Who Lost his Spectacles," a childish fable dropped on its head in the middle of Ian's most bombastic work ever (the point of course being that real medieval passion plays always had little fables in the middle like an intermission, yadda yadda yadda, history lesson). It's VERY underappreciated, in my opinion, and needs to be given its due. Perhaps you can't understand it without the video, but trust me, it's hilarious. Spoken word via Jeffrey backed by a real orchestra, instead of just John's keyboards (although John gives the quick spoken intro, great stuff). All the little blobs of music, the pauses and sound effects, the over-exaggerated sniffing, works perfectly with the narration.

Now, back to the album. "Black and White," overture, "Hare." We're lookin' good! We lose a little sight with "Foot of our Stairs," an inoffensive, but unimaginative, acoustic/keyboard/sax deal that's pulled beyond its means with jamming, and nothing that you haven't heard before. But then we meet Satan...

If there is anything on the album worth talking about, it's this. The "Overseer Over You." Everything works somehow. Ian's vocals are over the top, but hilarious. The keyboards are spacey, but cool. And Martin's guitar actually comes through for a change (he's playing out of a box; like on "Cross Eyed Mary!"). And Ian? Possibly the greatest noises he's made the sax ever produce. If Passion Play produced a classic number, it was the "Overseer Overture."

I love the organ transition here, and it becomes "Flee the Icy Lucifer." It's a decent enough rocker, but as I've said, nothing you haven't heard before if you've been paying attention to the album. Although I like the jig instrumental bit.

For some reason, we are next hit with some acoustic strumming that reminds me of Hawaiian music (hmm...maybe Play's more diverse than I give it credit for). This takes a very sharp transition, and turns into the energetic "Make the Ever Dying Sign" movement. It's not bad, but as I've said before, nothing you haven't picked up before. Just faster this time. Although I like the chorus bit.

There's some final acoustics to show we've come full circle, and one more shot at the overture and we fade. Now, remember how Thick ended? Yeah, it was awesome. Dude, that album ENDED. Play? Not so much. It just sort of falls apart in a lackluster kind of way. All I like is that brief shouting (what's he saying?). Maybe if Ian ended it better, I might be persuaded to raise rating, but...

So, as I've said, Passion Play is a collection of interesting musical ideas that are extended beyond their abilities, and any diversity is killed by overuse of Emersonian synths and weak sax. Not that I have anything against John's keys or Ian's sax, they're all well played, but remember Thick? EVERYONE in Thick had a shot to shine. There was a friggin' drum solo! Now, there ARE some decent guitar and flute parts, but they're buried (poor Martin) or few (where's Ian?). Barrie and Jeffrey are screwed though. So, lotsa synths, but the album can't work as atmosphere because it still tries to be engaging, nor can it work as listen-to music because it's not particularly memorable. Is it interesting? Sure. Amusing? Usually. But not particularly good.

Now, what do I mean by sell out (remember that?)? Up to this point, the Tullers were embracing early seventies alt-rock, but it was always on their own terms. Try to describe Aqualung using other bands: "if the Who had Eric Clapton and John Lord instead, hired an orchestra, and tried to play some hard gothic rockers with a little Bach thrown in for good measure." Okay, now Passion Play: "ELP covers the Yes Album." WHAT?!? Yep, even though Tull always had their own unique Tuller sound, with Passion Play, they play what sounds like everyone else around them (mostly due to the over reliance on John's spacey keyboards).

Alright, that's not fair to Tull (since the album does use the "Tull sound"), or to ELP (who I really do like) or to Yes (who I also...uh, I like the Yes Album at least). But still you see my point; Passion Play is a sell out in that it sounds like other popular albums at the time instead of that unique Jethro Ian noise.

Not that I'm saying it's a total waste of time. And I can understand why some people adore it. The first side has its moments, and the second side is almost cool. In fact, if you're more in for the prog haul than the Tull haul, then dude, this is YOUR album! Of course, I can also understand why some people can't stand it...

(Passion Play comes with but one extra feature: a video! And it's the greatest Tuller video this side of Slipstream. In fact, it's a better saving grace for the album than the "Overseer Overture." The video is, specifically, a theatrical version of the "Hare Who Lost His Spectacles" from the middle of the album. It is also one of the trippiest (not recommended for newcomers), most hilarious pieces of rock theatre ever recorded. Ever. If you're having trouble getting into "The Hare," you need to see this. Helped me. Jeffrey is the devil. Barrie is a cameraman who chases ballerinas. There's some guys in really bad bee and newt costumes. Best moment? Ian (SNIFF) hands Jeffrey a clipboard; Jeffrey reads it, then tosses it carelessly behind him. It's almost scary to think that someone gave them money to film this. It doesn't raise the overall rating a point, that would be too kind for a single video, but it easily raises it to a 3.5. In fact, maybe even the record alone gets a raise from the video, since it honestly helped me appreciate the album more. Seriously though, if you consider yourself a fan of Tull, prog rock, or just whatever, you need to see it at least once. Did I mention Jeffrey is the devil?)

The Whistler | 3/5 |


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