Jethro Tull just announced a massive, three-disc compilation to celebrate their 50th anniversary as a group. Titled 50 for 50, the set looks to unearth some underestimated gems from the band’s history, handpicked by the group’s frontman, Ian Anderson.
Even after many reissues of Jethro Tull, this can only be a good thing for the uninitiated or those suspicious of the group. Although Tull will always have its longtime cult following, younger listeners may mostly be put off by the band’s rather one-dimensional misinterpretations — wait, aren’t they the dorky old classic rock band with the flute and some guy named Aqualung?
The fact is, Jethro Tull quietly accumulated a half-century career that can go toe-to-toe with anyone else’s. Like his contemporary and equal, David Bowie, Anderson has a charmingly flat, neutral vocal range — but his lyrical curiosity and intellect has nearly no peer in rock & roll.
He and his ever-shifting lineup continue to draw on influences ranging from medieval music to heavy blues to electronica, yet, astonishingly, the recorded results have resulted in (almost!) no bad apples in the bunch. While many of his ‘70s contemporaries dealt in oversexed rockers and stoner poetry, Anderson was fixated on higher concepts from day one. Throw on even one of their lesser albums, and you’re likely to hear about the hypocrisy of religion, the history of agriculture, the primeval joy of animals or an inquiry into cutting-edge technology.
But it’s never lectures and pedantry; even when the music reaches its zippiest and most playful, Anderson is just as likely to sing about the everyday world: his reading glasses, a mouse, a book on the bedside table. If you’re wired a certain way, the most rapturous, gorgeous Jethro Tull songs can reach out and touch the tenderest part of your mind.
Tull’s body of work is surely not for everyone, but if you’re ever curious to dig a little deeper than “Aqualung,” 50 for 50 is a wonderful way to lift the shovel. Here are five lesser-known Tull gems we’re glad made the cut.
“Really Don’t Mind/See There A Son is Born” (from Thick as a Brick)
“We are circling the drain,” George Carlin memorably said about the state of the world — but I wager it’s just as easy to imagine that Ian Anderson said it. If 1970’s Tull rarity “Wond’ring Again” claimed “the excrement bubbles, the century’s slime decay,” then Thick as a Brick, released two years later, would turn that glum opinion into a thesis. The opening, acoustic movement “Really Don’t Mind” is the only real takeaway you need from that often sort of aimless-on-purpose, tongue-in-cheek rock opera, but it’s perfect in its moral cynicism. “The sandcastle virtues have all swept away/ In the tidal destruction, the moral melee,” it goes. And in our current era of monsters, creeps and villains eroding the framework of American society, “Really Don’t Mind” makes even more sense nearly a half-century later.
“One White Duck / 0^10 = Nothing at All” (from Minstrel in the Gallery)
“There’s a haze on the skyline to wish me on my way.” So begins “One White Duck,” one of a few Tull compositions in which the band disappears, leaving Anderson as the Minstrel in the Gallery himself with his acoustic guitar and a string quartet. The results are breathtaking; a mysterious, melancholy two-parter suggestive of packing up and leaving. What’s the “white duck on the wall,” anyway, and why is it portentous? Doesn’t matter, because the orchestra takes five halfway through and Anderson shifts gears to a new song completely, abandoning narrative logic; “I’m the black ace dog handler/ I’m your waiter on skates/ So don’t jump to your foreskin conclusion.” No matter how many times you try to parse it, “Duck” is puzzling, suggestive, romantic and a thing of verdant beauty.
“One Brown Mouse” (from Heavy Horses)
The band’s 1978 magnum opus, Heavy Horses, is partly a song cycle about animals in the English countryside and the United Kingdom’s retirement of horsepower in favor of industrial machinery. But this ambitious natural theme is never distilled better than on the album’s most beautiful song, “One Brown Mouse,” a rapturous ode to the most ordinary and banal of household pests. It’s all a shimmering pool of strummed guitars and mandolins, but then the transcendent moment comes during the wordless bridge, when the strings and flutes climb, climb, climb toward the rafters, then the band drops heavily right back into the verse at the most cheeky, proggy moment. Drop every one of your defenses, and “One Brown Mouse” is a rush of pure feeling; it will forcefully pry open your heart. Turns out the little furball is you he’s trying to reach. Smile your little smile.
“Steel Monkey” (from Crest of a Knave)
Crest of a Knave is mostly remembered today as the album that controversially won the 1989 Grammy Award for best hard rock/metal performance… over Metallica. (The response from Tull’s label, Chrysalis, where they took out a full-page Billboard ad just to say “The flute is a heavy, metal instrument!” was genius.) What appalled rockist fans failed to do here is actually listen to Knave, which begins with Tull’s final truly great, tough-as-nails rocker,“Steel Monkey.” It’s a lusty come-on song from a knuckleheaded skyscraper construction laborer talking himself up after a few ales. He works in thunder and works in rain — and you can have him climb all over you. Everything about “Monkey” elicits big, stupid grins — the vertiginous electronic sequencing, guitarist Martin Barre’s blazing Top Gun soloing and a dramatic skyward key change put you right there, 300 feet above the ground.
“Rare and Precious Chain” (from Roots to Branches)
This song, an ode to jewelry with an indigenous flair, is not a major track, but is chosen for the purposes of this list to extoll an uncommon pleasure: ’90s Tull. In this period, the band generally didn’t crank up the amps, rather diving into Arabic-influenced melodies and exotic, languid atmospheres that slouched toward new age music. There aren’t too many songs on the rather obscure and forgotten Roots to Branches that draw attention to themselves, but they coalesce into a dreamy, dated whole to where it hardly matters if someone breaks out a tacky synth effect or Ian Anderson sings something embarrassing like “Tiny beads of sweat/ Aaaah!” — it all fits the album’s humid-rainforest vibe. If Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones are granted their Shot of Love or Goats Head Soup, the flawed but subjectively adored albums heads love to disagree on, then I totally give Tull Roots to Branches. The middling, outlying albums can give you various pleasures that simmering delicacies like “One Brown Mouse” can’t — and that’s what happens when a band can become a widely misunderstood secret that feels all yours, a little personal hideaway, a whole world to explore on your own terms that you can return to over and over again. Rare and precious, indeed.