Can we take a minute to ponder the fate of the concept album? It seems like a relic of a golden, endearingly naive rock and roll past, equal parts Folly and Balls. As we move deep into the digital age with DJ’s, samples, shuffles, remixes and curated playlists, it seems unlikely the concept album will ever stage even a shortlived, nostalgic return. Sufjan Stevens does his state album thing, and they are fine listens, but c’mon, is an American state, even a good one like Illinois or Michigan, really a “concept?” And does a series of songs, even interconnected ones, really qualify? The Beatles started making Sergeant Pepper’s... as one, but ran out of gas and just laid down the tracks they had. In 1956 the Louvin Brothers debuted with Tragic Songs of Life, but would you call that a concept or merely what the songs just were?
It’s a slippery slope, with little definitive data. King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King is one for sure, and, appearing as it did in 1969, could lay claim to being the first. Nilsson’s The Point is, too. But it was a soundtrack to a short-lived TV show. The Wall passes muster. And Lou Reed made Berlin. That counts. But neither is what you’d call “symphonic.” Songs for Drella and New York, they’re really just song cycles. A lot of 70s "prog rock" is conceptual, but you'd have to be a Dadaist painter to figure out any coherent narrative. And don’t get me started on Tommy and the rock operas, kissing cousins at best. And what to do with Ziggy Stardust?...
All this leads me to Jethro Tull, one of the “bands of my youth,” and, despite what negative invective they might automatically trigger, they can boast without shame or doubt to have made not just one, but two of the best concept albums of all time. They were always leaning that way. Aqualung has a core theme of alienation and the hypocrisies of religion, even a “character” who represents the ideas of the album and the lead singer onstage, but it isn’t a concept album any more than Sergeant Pepper’s... But then came Thick as a Brick, and its piss-take narrative of a child prodigy made good, replete with a specially packaged album cover resembling a folded small town newspaper. Now that was the total package. It became their first #1 record in America.
Flush with confidence and a committed audience for their ambitious musical stylings, they plunged ahead a year later with A Passion Play, their second full length narrative record in a row (not counting the singles and B-side comp, Living in the Past). A Passion Play was symphonic in scope, operatic in scale, Joycean in intellectual pretension, all presented in one single cut with no track listings and no stand-alone songs. (They would release “edits” of select passages as single songs later on.) It tells the story of a man named Ronnie Pilgrim, whose death opens the record. As he watches his friends arrive late to his funeral because of traffic, he’s approached in a wasteland by an angel, who takes him to a movie theater where he watches the whole of his life, previously taped, unspool before his eyes. It is the last judgment, warts and all, where he sees, among other things, his sister get deflowered by a classmate.
Then he is taken up a set of stairs to the musty business offices of God and his son Lucifer, (G. Oddie and Son) where he learns that life on earth is a sad game of good cop/bad cop. Or else just a diabolically Capitalistic version of “catch as catch can.” At any rate it’s a nasty business on either team, and he leaves both God and the Devil to reflect on his life on his own terms, “neither good nor bad.” He decides that life alone is preferable to either option in eternity. “I'd trade my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once wore…”
Waiting in vain at the station, he realizes he must move on and dissolve in the eternal pool of shuffling creation to make room for "the passengers on the ferry." ("I thank everybody for making me welcome. I'd stay but my wings have just dropped off...") He must give way to the souls about to BE. At this point he confers with a Magus, not Jesus or his father, and the answer seems to be that wisdom, the beatitude of merely “being” is what life is all about, making one's own decision about right and wrong. "Tough are the soles that tread the knife's edge./Break the circle/stretch the line/call upon the devil/Bring the gods/the gods' own fire/In the conflict revel." As our narrator accepts his fate to be reborn and "renew the pledge of life's long song," he acknowledges consciously that life is about moving on and returning, that there will always be a “rush on the Fulham Road, into the ever-Passion Play…”
In the middle of all this sardonic Faustian sturm und drang, there is a jarring and unexpected break. After our hero Ronnie Pilgrim has watched his life play out onscreen, the angel runs for his brief entertainment a second “feature,” The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles. It is a conscious, pitch-perfect spoof of both A.A. Milne talking-animal children's stories, and the goofy musical productions for children such as Peter and the Wolf and various BBC Radio productions of the time. The moral is a casual Zen-like lesson about living life according to your own business and needs. Self-reliance and self-realization. Neither God nor Jesus nor Lucifer “the Overseer.” When Tull toured this record they would perform the whole album live from start to finish, breaking in the middle to show “The Hare...” as an animated film from a big screen on the stage.
If all this sounds like Folly and Balls, I’m sure Ian Anderson, Tull’s genius raison d’etre, would laughingly concur. It was a reach too high for the critics of the day who brought the epic, sprawling, dense, conceited joyride to an abrupt halt with a bunch of negative reviews. But fans didn’t care. They loved them even more. Maybe because Tull was actually trying to say something the legions of fans wanted to hear. At the end of the day, pretentious as it may sound—and by that I am not talking about the music, which is surprisingly deft and well orchestrated, with a consistent rhythm and recurring hooks and melodies that alternate between devilish keyboard wizardry, tight groaning grooves and flute-laced, acoustic-guitar fueled flights of such beauty and speed it feels like a bird chasing the sun across the ocean—Tull was always trying to make music about something. Something grand or simple, essential or infuriating, something worth saving, something ripe for a wicked dart.
Listening to them was like reading a dense modern novel. Cut rate Joyce or Beckett. In the neighborhood of Fowles or J.P. Donleavy. Albums full of puns, obscure references, literary symbols, inside jokes about things (as a teenager) I wanted to know about.
I got turned on to Tull by my best friend Clay in high school. Together we would analyze their songs ad infinitum, parsing each line for value, wisdom, meaning. The themes and subjects we encountered in Ian Anderson’s humble pop songs gave us the confidence and curiosity to tackle them in our later lives, in more subtle, shifting and complex variations. Religion, social responsibility, aging, consciousness, life and death, performance and reality, the zen-like peace of a moment. These were the ideas that at least gave a little competition to our teenage quest to get free and get fucked. It was good to have the balance. And I’ll always be grateful to the eponymous Jethro Tull as a crucial stepping stone.
These days prog rock seems to be making a comeback. I hope it lasts for awhile. A Passion Play’s journey to death and beyond is a trip worth taking. An overlooked relic from the golden age of bombastic concept albums and eagerly blown minds. A funeral was never such fun.
JETHRO TULL A PASSION PLAY, 1973, Chrysalis Records