Jethro Tull: Thick As A Brick: The 40th Anniversary Edition
The deluxe 40th anniversary edition of Jethro Tull's 1972 album Thick As A Brick (written in approximately ten days and recorded between August and November 1971) appears not long after the 2012 release of its sequel, TAAB2. Tull, formed in 1967, had by the time of Thick As A Brick's release established itself solidly, in large part due to the 1971 release of Aqualung. Interestingly, the concept album design of Thick As A Brick came about as somewhat of a cheeky reaction on Anderson's part to what in his mind had been the misguided labeling by fans and critics of Aqualung as a concept album. In his own words, he remembers thinking, “Okay, then we'll give them the mother of all concept albums next time!” The ever-mischievous Anderson poked fun at the prog genre's penchant for pomposity and ponderousness by proposing that Thick As A Brick's lyrics had been written by the eight-year-old child prodigy Gerald “Little Milton” Bostock (whose owl-like visage famously appears on the album cover). The winning entry in a poetry competition, Bostock's text (all written by Anderson, of course) takes as its theme the myriad challenges and absurdities of growing up.
Tull wasn't the the first band to issue a long-form, single-movement work, with Pink Floyd (Meddle), for instance, already having tackled the idea. But Tull went beyond the side-long presentation to album-length, a move the band would subsequently revisit on Passion Play. No matter how much the band struggled to wrest free of the label, the words ‘prog' and ‘Tull' were, from those days on, never far apart, no matter how much distance Tull tried to create between them via song-based efforts such as War Child and Songs From the Wood. Despite Thick As A Brick's length, however, the music is refreshingly free of the pomposity that many listeners associate with the genre, even if the work has its share of tricky 7/4 and 6/8 time changes. Interestingly, the group's sound, instrumentally speaking, is largely acoustically oriented, in contrast to the synthesizer-heavy sound sometimes associated with the genre. Sure, there are smatterings of glockenspiel, saxophone, tympani, and harpsichord, but the core of the album's sound is rooted in guitar, bass, drums, organ-piano, and, of course, Anderson's flute and vocals.
The deluxe reissue includes both a CD and DVD, the latter presenting the work in a pristine surround sound version. It would be more correct to refer to the CD' s ‘remixed' version as ‘remastered,' given that the modifications to the original composition are at the production level. The band's performance of the work sounds as high-energy today as it did four decades ago, but the updated rendering presents the work with a newfound clarity that will have Tull devotees feeling like they're hearing the work anew. There's a sharper separation between one instrument and another, and what one might have before heard as a thick, singular mass now is heard as a collective wherein the contributions of the individual player can be easily extracted from the whole. As a result, one now can appreciate Barre's guitar work all the more and also hear how much new drummer Barriemore Barlow's playing invigorated the band's already energized sound. Much of the album was played live, too, which also accounts for the level of exuberance in the playing. Stylistically the group's stylistic command is wide-ranging, its ability to navigate seamlessly between rock, folk, classical, and jazz remarkable. No one should regard the work's length as intimidating; as Anderson himself has said, Thick As A Brick in some respects is structurally more like a patchwork stitched together from three-minute songs, such that individual parts of it can be heard as melodic stand-alone sections in their own right. Put simply, it includes tunes one could whistle if one were so inclined.
The original album's newspaper-styled format (its ‘St. Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser' content littered with ridiculous stories such as “Magistrate Fines Himself” and “Non-rabbit Missing”) was a key part of the release so, naturally, some degree of serious attention had to be given to the visual presentation of the new edition. Included within the durable hardback case housing the discs is a mini-booklet that first re-presents the contents of the original newspaper and then follows it with a colour supplement that features photographs, articles, interviews, and reminiscences from the band (Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond) and associates (original engineer Robin Black, Tull's 1969-1973 tour manager Eric Brooks). Anderson's and Tull's signature levity is always close at hand, nowhere more so than in the newspaper where an advance review of Thick As A Brick by one Julian Stone-Mason appears on the page following Bostock's lyrics, a review that ends with the wry assessment: “Not blatantly commercial, then, but a fine disc, which, although possessing many faults, should do well enough.” Thick As A Brick's forty-four minutes hold up as strongly today as they did then—no small accomplishment for a piece of music four decades old.