Critics have often tried to pigeonhole the album Aqualung into one of several categories: concept album, progressive rock, folk rock, hard rock, et cetera, ad nauseam. In fact, the repeated critical mantra of ‘concept album’ so annoyed Tull front man, Ian Anderson, that he vigorously denied the label: “I always said at the time that this is not a concept album; this is just an album of varied songs of varied instrumentation and intensity in which three or four are the kind of keynote pieces for the album but it doesn’t make it a concept album.”
Finally, in exasperation, Anderson and Tull made a fateful decision, “Well, if they thought Aqualung was a concept album, O-O-K, we’ll show you a concept album.” And thus was born the monster of all concepts, the 42 minute-long single song epic “Thick as a Brick.”
But the brilliance of Aqualung is that it transcended what was termed ‘hard rock’ back in 1971, and offered a refreshing synthesis of several styles and moods. Rather than the droning four-chord assaults of such bands as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Jethro Tull presented virtuosity, variation and volume in Aqualung, making it one of the greatest examples of 1970’s rock, and Tull remains one of the few bands to create albums on their own terms, rather than the profligate whims of record corporations. Conformity was never one of Ian Anderson’s strong suits, which is why you won’t be seeing Tull in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon, but you will see the Bee Gees (and ABBA, for Christ’s sake! who the hell votes for these inanities?).
The lyrics are dryly witty and sarcastic at times, particularly regarding Christian hypocrisy (like in “My God”, “Hymn 43” and “Wind Up”), whimsical (“Mother Goose”), reflective (“Wond’ring Aloud”), or vulgar (“Cross-eyed Mary”), but the overall effect is a seamless travelogue of England itself, a journey that includes both the pastoral landscapes of Hampstead and the gritty streets of London or Birmingham. We hobnob with whores, pedophiles, losers, and bums, as well as schoolboys, nurses, and bishops at tea.
The title song “Aqualung” is a microcosmic mini-epic of the album itself, containing bits and pieces of the album’s philosophy and irreverence (the lyric “snot is running down his nose” made all school boys snicker with glee in ’71 — there weren’t really many references to ‘snot’ on an album prior to this), and it is still played daily on every classic rock station ’round the world, just like “Stairway to Heaven” and the “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The poetic allusiveness of the lyrics is exceptionally strong and evokes England to its very core (“feeling alone, the army’s up the road, salvation a la mode, and a cup of tea”), while reminding us that the death of the homeless beggar, who snatches his last rattling breath with “deep-sea diver sounds”, is the reason the album is called Aqualung in the first place (an ‘aqualung’ is a breathing apparatus used by deep-sea divers, consisting of a mouthpiece attached to air cylinders, causing the distinctive echoed gasping sounds as oxygen is breathed in).
The flute, that rock music novelty which has become indelibly identified with Tull, is not necessarily the focal point of this album; on the contrary, the album’s greatest hit, the song “Aqualung”, contains not a hint of flute. Of course, Ian Anderson’s manic attacks on the instrument are pronounced and plentiful on “Locomotive Breath”, “Up to Me” and “My God”, where the flute becomes a weapon and not some effeminate, whimpering thing. Indeed, the flute is a heavy metal instrument both literally and figuratively.
But it is Anderson’s interludes on acoustic guitar that really sets this album apart from the run-of-the-mill 70’s stock rock offerings. The acoustic guitar work on songs such as “Aqualung”, “Mother Goose”, “Slipstream”, “My God” and “Cheap Day Return” is integral to the overall effect of the album, sometimes subtle and nuanced, and at other times biting and inflected. Anderson’s acoustic guitar, used in tandem with Martin Barre’s restrained but precise and powerful electric leads, gives the character sketches that fill the album their moods, whether introspective or indignant, angry or amused.
When Aqualung rocks, it really rocks, but it also presents other tonal dimensions that make it a unique and exceptionally strong album. I give Aqualung a five star rating as an essential album, particularly in context with the music of its era.