Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick (1972)
Welcome back to Your Dad’s Car Stereo after a week off. I was travelling for work this past week and didn’t get a chance to prepare a review in advance, but hopefully I’m making up for it with a good one! This week we’re covering one of my “Desert 10 Albums” (more on those in another article!); Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull. For the un-initiated, Jethro Tull are a still active English, progressive rock group led by front man and lead flautist (flute player), Ian Anderson. The band has shifted styles throughout their active years and have covered almost every genre out there, leading them to infamously win the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance over Metllica’s …And Justice For All, and Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking! Remember, this band has a lead flautist…that’s all I’m saying!
During their peak in the early 1970s, Jethro Tull released their commercially successful fourth studio album, Aqualung. The lead single was a massive hit and is still played on classic rock radio to this day. At the time, critics described the album as “progressive rock” sounding similar to contemporary groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Yes. Anderson stated multiple times that the band never set out to make a progressive rock album and considered Aqualung to be just a collection of good rock songs. To stick it to all of those reporters, they used the platform of their fifth album to create the mother of all concept albums that would poke fun at bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the music critics who thought Aqualung was prog rock, and would satirize the (what Anderson thought was overblown and self-righteous) prog rock genre as a whole. The result was one of the best progressive rock albums of all time.
Thick as a Brick is one song laid across two sides of the same album that tells the story of a poem written by a fictional boy named Gerald Bostock. Generally, the album tells the story of a “wise man” and a “poet and a painter,” and analyzes what true wisdom is versus what it means to be ‘thick as a brick,’ or dumb, through Monty Python-esque absurdity and a musical accompaniment. I love Thick as a Brick. The music is constantly evolving, and I find something that gives the song a new meaning every time I listen to it. I’m particularly fond of how critical the band was of prog rock in the press after Aqualung, then went on to make an album lampooning the genre as a whole, but it kind of backfired in the sense that it became one of the best prog rock albums ever written. Because this is really one song split into two parts, I’ve condensed my review into one song. I hope that you find something that speaks to you in this album, whether it’s the musicality, the lyrics, the story behind the recording, or something else. Ladies and Gentlemen, Thick as a Brick.
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Thick as a Brick (Parts 1 and 2): Musically, Thick as a Brick is all over the board. Let’s start with the use of multiple suites. The medieval-like melody that you hear at the beginning of the song will carry throughout the entire album with multiple variations, often downshifting to a minor key during more serious and darker portions of the story of the Wise Man and the Poet/Painter and shifting up during the lighter portions. Thick as a Brick shifts seamlessly between light, airy sections that seem to be straight of a fairytale and feature heavy contributions from xylophones and the flute and are juxtaposed by frenetic sections that are driven by a fast-paced electric guitar. Musically, the song is flawless. There are multiple extended flute solos that I look forward to whenever I know they’re coming up. Flute solos aren’t often heard in rock music, and you may be thinking to yourself “How on Earth does a flute solo fit into a rock song?” Trust me when I say that it’s the ingredient that has been missing the whole time. It adds a different, lighter feeling to the song as a whole, making it almost feel bouncy. Flutes aren’t the only odd instrument used in this half-farce of a progressive rock album; it includes significant contributions from a lute, both acoustic and electric guitars, a full string orchestra, and a Hammond organ. I’ve never actually heard a song that featured as much organ as this song or used it as a driving instrument in this way. The only album that comes close is Close to the Edge by Yes. Credit where credit is due, if you’re trying to make fun of a band like Yes, overuse of flute solos, an organ, and multi-minute long drum fills are the way to do it. (For the record, I like Yes very much too, but an idea to lampoon one of my favorite bands that’s execute this well has to be given credit.)
At this point, you may be wondering if one side of the album is better than the other. And this is where I’ll tell you that “No, there isn’t.” Part 1 and Part 2 act as opposites structurally. Part 1 opens on a soft melody leading to a high-energy closing that is picked up in Part 2 before closing the record on a lighter note again. Part 2 is ever-so slightly more instrumental than Part 1, but I think the instrumentation in Part 1 is more interesting to listen to. It’s the first time you as the listener are being introduced to the melodies that carry the song and will be twisted and variated throughout the song. Thick as a Brick is one of those songs that is best listened to with headphones on when you have a spare thirty minutes, and I highly encourage you to take time to listen to it this week. This is a flawless album that has gone on to influence many of the biggest acts in rock and roll and is an important piece in the development and legitimacy of prog rock as a whole; even if it wasn’t supposed to be. Dad’s Rating 10/10
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