Somewhere in my basement crates, there’s a well-worn vinyl copy of Jethro Tull’s Thick As a Brick with the mock newspaper cover purporting to be an issue of The St. Cleve Chronicle and Linwell Advertiser. The newspaper, with its story of the fictitious child poet Gerald Bostock, is worth hanging on to but the album inside should never see a turntable again. It earned its retirement many times over.
But what of that once young lad named Gerald Bostock? He’d be just two years shy of turning 50 this year on the 40th anniversary of the epic album now simply known as TAAB. Contemplating the possibilities of the roads Gerald might have taken, his creator Ian Anderson didn’t come up with one answer. Instead, he imagined a series of what-ifs, maybes, might-have-beens, offering these variant paths on Thick As a Brick 2. Considering the impact of the first Brick project, that’s an ambitious concept.
Of course, no sequel to TAAB can match its historical place for being a breakthrough “concept” album. That’s a bit ironic as Anderson had crafted TAAB specifically to parody the overblown direction progressive rock was going in 1972. Hence the fake newspaper, the fake young poet, the entire tongue-in-cheek presentation. But beyond all the fanciful packaging and theatrics, the main selling point was the seamless and impressive “song” that filled two sides of an album. It was split into two parts only to accommodate the reality that listeners had to turn the disc over.
So, putting the contexts of the early ‘70s aside, is TAAB 2 a worthy follow-up to its inspiration? Yes and no. Arguably, the sequel is Anderson’s finest work since 2003’s Christmas Album. While TAAB is clearly the starting point for its successor, the bulk of the music is fresh, new, and more than well-played. Other than the opening fade-in—duplicating the organ chords of side two of the original album—and the closing coda, there are few overt melodic or lyrical echoes from TAAB. However, Anderson gathered a fine cast of supporting players who perfectly channel the sound of the 1972 line-up of Jethro Tull. Considerable credit should be shared among David Goodier (bass and glockenspiel), Scott Hammond (drums), John O’Hara (Hammond organ and keyboards), and Florian Opahle (electric guitar). For producer, Anderson tapped Steve Wilson, who’d done a masterful job of remastering both Aqualung and TAAB for their 40th anniversary editions. One mystery has yet to be explained: why didn’t longtime guitar mainstay Martin Barre get so much as a cameo?
While there is an overarching connection for all the tracks, there’s no space between any of them. Many of the 17 selections are bundled in groups of two or three related storylines. Appropriately, the first songs deal with looking back at school days for a young man “Adrift and Dumbfounded.” One of these, “Old School Song,” uses the most familiar of the melodic themes drawn from the original album. Likewise, “Wootton Bassett Town” may remind listeners of Tull’s 1982 “Broadsword” with lines about needing a place to “sheath our swords.”
What might have happened if Gerald Bostock had followed a path in the church? “Power and Spirit” partly answers this before leading into the comic satire of money-grubbing preachers, “Give Till It Hurts.” What if Gerald went into the retail trade? “Cosy Corner” explores this, with sly references to “Locomotive Breath,” as does “Shunt and Shuffle,” with lyrical references to Tull’s original follow-up to TAAB, 1973′s Passion Play.
Other alternate realities include Bostock in the military, homeless, and in “Confessional” Gerald is a former millionaire who lost it all and is disgraced. In “A Change of Horses,” Gerald is “51 years from home” and ready for a fresh start, just as he is in “Kismet in Suburbia” where he’ll “lay me down to live in acquiescence.” The cycle has come full circle, from schoolyard hopes to reflections on the choices and chances taken or missed.
Speaking of choices, the listener will have to decide which version of the album he’d like to play first in the “Special Edition.” We’re given a 5.1 surround mix and a 24-bit stereo mix. While both have their strong points, I’d say go 5.1 and then enjoy the bonus features. They include a video of Anderson going behind the scenes in the studio, which demonstrates just how intellectually challenging the musicians found their parts. There’s also a 25 minute reading of the lyrics so you can focus on the poetry and perhaps get a little deeper into the multi-faceted world of Gerald Bostock. Well, the world of us all, as Anderson presented a canvas in which one character serves as an Everyman—another brick, as it were, in the wall.
In the end, you can call Thick As a Brick 2 by any title you like and it would still be a superb Ian Anderson album. It’s updated progressive rock for the heart and head, with beautiful Celtic-flavored melodies, wry humor, enigmatic lyrics, complex musicianship, rapidly shifting tones and arrangements, not to mention state-of-the-art production values. Best of all, it sounds like classic Jethro Tull. There can be only one Thick As a Brick, but I suspect I’ll be playing this new album just as often. The main difference will be that I won’t be scratching up the grooves. The newspaper, this time around, is online. The cover now depicts, appropriately enough, blog entries.