Tull's most opinion-dividing album tackles no less a subject than a soul's journey through the afterlife. The protagonist visits limbo, heaven and hell, and isn't too impressed by any of them as a final resting place. There's a reminder of the cynicism about religion that Ian Anderson displayed on "Aqualung", but this time with gloopier lyrics based on layers of elaborate metaphors and symbolism. Unsurprisingly the album's narrator isn't fond of simplistic binary views of good and evil souls, and finally, although the ending is ambiguous, seems to opt for reincarnation. These are the kind of lyrics that might make the listener feel stupid, and force them to think (unless they've discovered that someone's already done it for them!).
Unfortunately such a weighty concept doesn't have enough strong music to sustain it. It's held together by a pleasant meandering theme to go with the recurrence of the album's title. There's plenty of attractive arrangements, tight playing, and jazzy, proggy improvisation, with Anderson in particular giving plenty of colour on sax. But it's nowhere near the focused brilliance of "Thick as a Brick". You can tell when they're trying to buid up some spiky tension, like on the lumbering electric guitar riffs that accompany the scene where the protagonist is shown his life on screen, but this just ends up sounding tired. Mostly, it gives the effect of no more than incidental music for a theatre production.
As a theatrical interval, about halfway through the album they present a goofy side-show to amuse the audience: an Æsop-style fable of "The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles". I'm one of many listeners whose finger heads for the fast forward button at the start of this section. It's too much in that dated BBC, Goon Show style of comedy, where something is automatically made funny by saying it in a silly voice. Which is usually a bizarre meld of various English posh and regional accents.
I expect that it was a lot more satisfying in its original live performances, accompanied by plenty of staging and theatrical trappings. But the general limpness of the music here makes it difficult to recommend as a stand-alone album.
May 6, 2005