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Jethro Tull - A Passion Play CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

4.02 | 1405 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars For those of you who weren't alive and/or aware during the 60s and 70s and wonder why that period of musical history garners so much attention and admiration in the prog world, consider the fact that both "Thick as a Brick" and "Passion Play" were not just popular but rose to #1 on the charts in the U.S.A. Chew on that for a moment. The general public at large not only enjoyed but fully embraced progressive rock in that era. Nowadays if you confess to your friends and family that your preferred genre of music is prog they will most likely look at you as if you just rudely crapped yesterday's meatloaf on the living room floor. So, when you listen to this enigmatic work of art, keep in mind that, despite a complete lack of radio support (there was no single or excerpt to play), it was readily accepted by even the most average of Joe in those days. Hard to believe but the data confirms it.

Having said that, I must admit that I missed "Passion Play" completely. As revealed in my review of TAAB, I was so disgusted by what I perceived to be the blatant commercialism of "Aqualung" that I childishly turned my back on one of my favorite bands and boycotted every offering they released thereafter. Thus it wasn't until this millennium that I came to my senses (heavily influenced by the esteem that my proggy peers place on Jethro Tull's contributions to the cause) and delved back into what I cavalierly dismissed like some spiteful lover scorned. The downside of my infantile behavior is that I denied myself the pleasure of the group's creations for decades. The silver lining is that it's not too late and now I get to discover them anew.

It's apparent that "Thick as a Brick" is pretty much universally accepted by proggers young and old as a bonafide masterpiece, and rightfully so. It is amazingly cohesive and inspired. Yet many of the same folk that applaud that album disparage this one and I'm not sure why. While I will concede that "Passion Play" doesn't quite scale the dizzying heights that its predecessor does, it remains a challenging and very thought-provoking endeavor that should appeal directly to those who firmly profess to adore unorthodox, progressive rock. (By now you're mumbling "Enough already, old dude, get on with your insightful report. I humbly agree and will do so forthwith.)

The first section is a glimpse of our unnamed protagonist's earthly life distilled down to a 3:24 time span, represented by a festive marching parade atmosphere and book-ended by his first and last heartbeats. Now he awakens in the afterlife where, after the initial shock wears off, his first inquiry to no one in particular is "Do you still see me, even here?" The beautiful interplay between Ian Anderson on acoustic guitar and John Evan on piano as they underscore the complex melody line is terrific and they do a great job of allowing Ian's abstract lyrics to flow effortlessly. Our boy isn't sure what to think of this place. "Such a sense of glowing in the aftermath/ripe with rich attainments all imagined/the sore thumb screams aloud/echoing out of the Passion Play," he sings. Suddenly the band jumps in and delivers a high-spirited, jazzy interlude before they return to a calmer motif. A "sweetly-scented angel" leads our hero to the pearly gates where deft acoustic guitar playing serenades him. A very Tull-like rocker approach is used to personify the heavenly security guards that usher him into a viewing room where he's informed that during his mortal existence "cameras were all around" and "we've got you taped, you're in the play." The dense musical structure here is filled with intricate time signatures and difficult passages as well as raw saxophone and synthesizer lines whilst Anderson plays a stunning flute solo. At this point my mind reels at the group's audacity and courage.

The poor fellow's history is screened for him without discretion and there are so many entertainingly poetic lines thrown about during this extended, rocking sequence that I can only encourage you to follow along in your libretto as you listen. The dynamics are interwoven with astounding skill into the flow of the narrative that speaks of telephones that "never cooled from the heat of your hand," how he was the actor of the "low-high IQ" and how he was reminded of his little sister's virginity being snatched by a "young horse named George/who stole surreptitiously into her geography revision." While the film's end credits roll he is asked by the staff whether he thinks the documentary was for "our good cheer" or for "the gory satisfaction of telling you how absolutely awful you really are." (St. Peter and his posse are rather cheeky, are they not?) A short reverie from the acoustic guitar leads to a gorgeous, too-brief instrumental featuring an echoing synthesizer air as it resonates among the clouds.

Without explanation Jethro Tull next tosses in the controversial spoken-word diversion that is "The Story of the Hare who lost his Spectacles." While I understand how and why this disruption ruffles the fur of many, I've come to consider it a sly, wry satire on the sometimes confusing and irritating clerical employment of condescending parables as theological and ethical teaching tools. Its abrupt appearance smack dab in the middle of the album is strange, indeed, but the background orchestration is intriguing and I like the implied sarcasm in the grandiose presentation of a tale that, in the end, means absolutely nothing. (Evidently, though, the angelic professors are extremely proud of it.) A reprise of the lovely music ensues, then the group leads you into a mellow but still non- standard/involved segment where our disembodied man finds himself in the company of a bunch of groveling carpet crawlers, surrounded by old farts who "talk of when they were young/of ladies lost and erring sons" and where the Gods are "floating by/wishing us well/pie in the sky." Our restless soul is not impressed by this shallow heavenly abode so he puts in for a transfer to somewhere else.

Since Hell is the only other "somewhere else" there is, that's where he lands. A jazzy jam greets him, then Ian's vocal and acoustic guitar extend a gracious welcome as the Devil asks him to "give me your hate/and do as the loving heathen do." Another lengthy but satisfying rock & roll episode decorates his whirlwind tour of the underworld. It's not ominous music as you might expect, but stately and pompous in its intensity as Lucifer briefs him on the saga of his falling "with mine angels/from a far better place/offering services/for the saving of face." But apparently the stench of brimstone doesn't endear our hero to Hades, either. Since rejoining his breathing brethren on Terra Firma isn't an option (though he'd gladly "give up my halo and the horn for the hat I once had") he thanks-but-no-thanks the Crimson King for making him feel wanted while boarding the tram back to the penthouse pronto.

Pretty acoustic guitars from Anderson and fluid electric guitar lines from Martin Barre color his unconditional return to Heaven Station just before an edgy, forceful riff takes over for another rock excursion where the rhythm section of drummer Barriemore Barlow and bassist Jeffrey Hammond- Hammond are so tight that you hardly notice them. Our ethereal boy has resigned himself to willingly participate in the curious cosmic adventure as the seraphim "roll the stone away from the dark into ever-day." He still has no clue as to what is expected of him or what the future entails exactly but the dissonant sounds emanating from the fade out indicate that eternity is going to be a real mindf**ker.

Everything from the clever but macabre cover shot with its dead, bleeding ballerina to its daunting, abstruse musical themes and arrangements literally screams PROG and nothing else to my ears. So my thinking is that if "Passion Play" doesn't appeal to those brave 21st century aural adventurers who frequent websites like this one then it certainly won't hold an iota of charm for anyone else. I like it a lot. I deem it to be a slightly-flawed yet delightful, highly uncommercial romp in which Jethro Tull dared to continue to contradict the low-risk wisdom of cranking out more light, hummable ditties like "Cross-eyed Mary" and "Locomotive Breath" in lieu of running in the front ranks of the progressive rock movement. It's not "Thick as a Brick" but it comes damn close. 4.4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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