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There's no such thing as "classic rock radio" in the UK, as there is in the US. So I'd never heard any of these tracks played to death on it, and all of Jethro Tull's most successful album was new to me. But I can see why it's established as a classic - fine melodic, rocking songwriting and playing. Ian Anderson's strident flute and piercing vocals bring life to his colourful and savage lyrics. Martin Barre's grinding riff that starts the first track is up there with Jimmy Page's best. Especially combined with the gruffly barked-out "snot running down his nose" lyric. As well as Barre's axemanship, Anderson's intricate acoustic and 12-string guitar work and John Evan's keyboards give a solid musical backbone to the storytelling.
They mixed a tender English folk sound with the baroque intricacy of prog rock. The combination of 12-string and flute will be familiar to Gabriel-era Genesis (and maybe Led Zeppelin) fans but Tull were more down-to-earth. Their command of tunes ranges from the infectious flute refrain on the trippy North London jaunt "Mother Goose" to brazen rock attitude on "Up To Me". I sometimes think the central wig-out flute and chanting section of "My God" seems over-indulgent, so I'll probably be asked to hand in my prog-rock card at the door.
The three short acoustic episodes work well as wistful asides, giving continuity to the main tracks. But as a unified work the album seems somewhat lop-sided. The heavy moralising in the second half tends to unbalance the more human character narratives of the first half. Anderson's railing against the hypocrisy of religious authorities is enough for the monumental "My God". But by the final "Wind Up", its message begins to be banged home with a sledgehammer. The driving riff-rocker "Locomotive Breath" successfully returns a personal touch to the sequence, as the down-and-out depicted in the title track "rushes headlong to his death".
March 28, 2005