Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick
Ah, prog rock: Much maligned, and often rightly so, when the complexity gets in the way of the soul. But was progressive music ever supposed to be soulful? What does soulful mean, anyway? The very nature of it is something difficult to nail down and put into words, since thoughts themselves are inherently not very soulful.
Which leads to a deeper question: what is music for? Context, while not everything, counts for a lot. If music is made for dancing, then it’s got to move, it’s got to have a beat, and the steadier the better. When it’s not for dancing, then the tempo and meter no long matter as much. It can speed up, slow down, change time signatures completely, and veer in and out of different genres at will.
I’m only an amateur music historian, and have limited knowledge of how exactly music made the unlikely leap from ritual drumming to classical composition to hip- hop in the span of the last dozen-or-so centuries. Clearly, it was a complicated process of cross-cultural co-mingling, where sounds, traditions, forms, and technology all met to create and spread new forms to the masses.
Sometime in the early 1970s, a form emerged that became known as progressive rock, an extension of rock n’ roll that stripped away a lot of its dancier elements (the “roll”) and borrowed from classical and jazz by valuing composition and virtuosic playing above most everything else. As a result, the songs got longer and thematically linked, creating what became known as the “concept album.”
Thick as a Brick was one of the first to employ one continuous track for the entire duration of the album. And, ironically enough, it was meant to be a parody of the concept album. The cover itself was a satirical jab at tabloids that folded out and read like a newspaper, and even included a mixed review of itself. The album is supposed to be based on a vulgar poem by an eight-year old genius. The whole packaging is very Monty Python-esque, clever and ambitious and fun, but adds little to the actual music. And how the album parodies progressive music by exemplifying it is beyond me.
Though I can understand and sometimes even agree with the common critiques of progr rock (it’s long, boring noodling – it’s pretentious and indulgent – etc.), this particular album still resonates for me. It’s the first Tull album to truly divorce itself from the blues, which also means few blues progressions, and few amped-up, bluesy solos. It’s not really one song, but a series of them expertly woven together, and they veer from acoustic folk to heavy rock. Each section is full of so many great melodies that I don’t even mind the more abrupt changes. And there’s little wanking because everything is so tightly composed. Even a drum solo sounds less showy than most, utilizing a kind of Elvin Jones-like urgency. Not only do the players play well, but the albums sounds great: the layers build, the acoustic strings rattle and hum, the organ wails, the electric guitar blazes, and the flute swoops in and fucks shit up.
Oh yeah, that’s the other common Tull-complaint: that damned flute. Here, I find it mostly delightful, especially when laced with delay and other effects. Overall, as I listen now, the words that spring most to mind are “damn entertaining.” Part of this is the channel-surfing quality of the music: before you can get bored with one passage, another comes in and takes the song to a new, unexpected place.
Is it a classical music album made by a rock band, or a folk album using classical composition in a rock setting, or… who knows?!? It’s all of the above, and, more than that, it’s fun, at least for me.
Yet I’ll admit I never think to put this album on, or most progressive rock albums, especially when other, non-prog rock fans are around. It’s far from background music, because it kind of demands your attention. And I’m really not sure how much my liking of it still has to do with nostalgia for a time in high school when this music meant something to me. And why exactly did it speak to me? Was it partially a testosterone filled desire to hear complicated music performed by professionals at their peak? Was it the same as sports fans thrilling at the Michael Jordans or Venus/Serena Williams of the world? Gearheads love of muscle cars? I can’t say…
A year after this was released, Jethro Tull put out another concept album, A Passion Play (which makes me wonder how sincere their “parody” intentions were). It’s an album I never got into, as a teenager or otherwise. Listening to it now, its sounds like a pale comparison to Brick, with weaker melodies and less impassioned playing. Despite some decent sections, the overall effect does feel pretentious, marrying classical and rock in ways that lessen both.
But, perhaps someone would say the same hearing Thick as a Brick for the first time. I have no clue. All I know is, I’ll probably still enjoy it the next time I listen to it, ten or so years from now…