Always fond of conceptual storytelling, Ian Anderson goes himself one better with his latest prog-folk-metal concept album. The 15 songs of Homo Erraticus inhabit not one but two metafictional layers. The Gerald Bostock character, hero/anti-hero of the seminal Jethro Tull album Thick as a Brick and its recent sequel Thick as a Brick 2, is back again, having now discovered a manuscript left behind in the 1920s by a malaria-ridden old British soldier delightfully named Ernest T. Parritt.
Parritt’s supposed writings range over northern European history from the Mesolithic era to his own – and on into his future, through the whole 20th century and into our own time and beyond. Winnowed into lyrics written by “Bostock” and set to music by the real protagonist of the story, Ian Anderson, these materials give Anderson – whose creative scope and energy remain robust even as his singing voice has thinned with age – a walk-in-closetful of pegs on which to hang a sequence of songs evoking nothing less than the history of mankind in his part of the world.
The first track, “Doggerland,” commemorates the area of the southern North Sea that used to be dry land connecting today’s British Isles with the rest of Europe. Doggerland vanished under the waves as the last Ice Age ended but, as fisherman discovered not long ago, the sea floor retains much archeological evidence of human occupation. The succeeding songs address migrations, metalworking, invasions (from the Romans to Burger King), the arrival of Christianity, the Industrial Revolution, and so on. To appreciate the songs, you’ll want to (at least once) follow along with the notes and lyrics in the accompanying 32-page booklet.
The Foreword, in which Anderson discusses the history of Jethro Tull and why he hasn’t used the band name for his last few recordings, will especially interest longtime Tull fans. The real question is, will the songs themselves? Some yes, some no. The gruff metal of “Doggerland” gives way to the sweet, plinking folk of “Heavy Metals.” (I imagine Anderson chuckling to himself at the irony – no pun intended – of creating such a gentle-sounding song with that title, and on that literal topic.) Both satisfy my Tull craving. “Meliora Sequamur” (Let Us Follow Better Things), which paints a picture of 12th century schoolboys amid religious chant (and cant), does too, and “The Turnpike Inn” is a solid rocker, and the hard-Celtic style of “The Engineer” moves briskly.
I like the instrumental track “Tripudium ad Bellum” (Dancing to War). It starts off with an echo of a theme from the original Thick as a Brick (there are others elsewhere on the album), then resolves into a 5/4 march, like a more insistent “Living in the Past.” War’s aftermath appears in the next track, the sad, deliberate “After These Wars,” in which I really feel the lack of Anderson’s full-strength vocals. While he was never among rock’s greatest singers, that didn’t matter – when he sang his songs, you always felt he was all there, and that’s what mattered. But now, and not only in the harder songs that shade into old-school heavy metal, his voice just isn’t always a match for his music’s energy any more.
On the other hand, his gift for crafting pleasing, original melodies, writing smart, clever lyrics in complete sentences and true rhyme, and setting much of it in non-traditional time signatures remains strong. The first verse of “After These Wars” reads:
After battle, with wounds to lick and
beaus and belles all reuniting.
Rationing, austerity: it did us good after the fighting.
Now, time to bid some fond farewells and
walk away from empires crumbling.
Post-war baby-boom to fuel with post-
Victorian half-dressed fumbling.
No one in pop music writes like that anymore.
Listening to the album as a complete conceptual work, my overall feeling is that there isn’t very much new here. Since the 1960s Anderson and Tull have explored countless different musical paths and styles. Some of these produced some of my all-time favorite songs and recordings. Others I hated. But he never seemed to be resting on his laurels. Here I feel like I’m reading a chapter that’s not much different from the last chapter.
But listening to the songs individually, I like a lot of them. As I write this I’m trying to count the beats of the off-time closer, “Cold Dead Reckoning,” with its grim imagery of a future of lost souls navigating their way over a metaphysical Doggerland “amongst the ranks and files of walking dead.” I hear crunching minor-key guitar-bass-piano unison figures, a sprightly flute solo. A hopeful verse about “angels watching over” at the end doesn’t convince me, as the music continues to growl on as before. Yet there follow a sweet, gentle instrumental coda, reminded us that while things may not turn out well for humanity as we teem over and ruin our only planet, our capacity to create and to appreciate beauty will be with us as long as we live. So let’s raise the cup of crimson wonder to Ian Anderson as he charges not-so-gently through his seventh decade.Powered by Sidelines