Released: May 1971
Chart Peak: #7
Weeks Charted: 76
Certified Gold: 7/1/71
Jethro Tull is one of our most serious and intelligent groups, and Ian Anderson's choice of subject for Aqualung -- the distinction between religion and God -- is witness to that. Side one Aqualung consists of a series of seedy viginettes drawn from modern secular English life, while the printed lyrics are cast in Gothic lettering to emphasize the album's liturgical basis. The title song depicts the beggar in all his shabbiness and lechery. "Aqualung" is actually three songs; as the different moods of the narrator unfold, the music changes accordingly. The initial melodic statement sung in a harsh, surly voice is ugly and plodding; it then shades into something milder and more sympathetic, then into something which rocks a little more.
Another of society's dregs, cross-eyed Mary the slut, of the song of the same name, is the object of Aqualung's attentions. Anderson sounds equally disapproving here. "Mother Goose" is the kind of song that Anderson writes best. As in "Sossity" on Benefit, he uncannily captures the feel of a real Elizabethan madrigal (a consort of recorders here helps it get across). It's a song about a Hampstead fair, and is filled with descriptive detail which is at once archaic and up to date. Lyrics and melody mutually accomplish the same purpose, for both express the continuity of English life.
Side two, subtitled "My God," deals more explicitly with religion. The nub of the issue is Christian hypocrisy, how people manipulate notions of God for their own ends. There is some rather obvious talk of plastic crucifixes, Blakean allusions to locklilng "Him in His golden cage," invective; "The bloody Church of England/In chains of history/Requests your earthy presence at/The vicarage for tea." Beneath the accusatory tone is a moving musical theme. There are stately hymnal changes, a jazzy flute break, a pomp-and circumstantial motive which, when inverted, assumes a more chromatic, modern queasiness. The gamut of religious experience is encompassed in this song.
"Wind Up" winds up the album and embodies most of the albums' difficulties. While Anderson is adept at conceiving a musical approximation of an idea, his lyrics are overly intentional, ponderous, and didactic. At a time when the more arcane varieties of religious experiences are trumpeted far and wide, and atheism and agnosticism still more than hold their own, it is difficult for the modern temper to get worked up over good old-fashioned Christian hypocrisy. There is a lot of misplaced emotion on this record.
Thus, despite the fine musicianship and often brilliant structural organization of songs, this album is not elevated, but undermined by its seriousness.
- Ben Gerson, Rolling Stone, 7/22/71.
Tull does it again. This disc isn't as good as Benefit, but it's the best rock record I've heard lately. Ian Anderson has written another clutch of infectious melodies and given them the distinctive Tull flavor with his complex, inflorescent arrangements. The Tull trademarks are there: Anderson's acoustic guitar sketching the outline, Martin Barre's stylized electric guitar filling in the body of sound, drummer Clive Bunker and bassist Jeffrey Hammond providing that rhythmic overlap at the ends of phrases that no band does in quite the same way, and Anderson's flute marking out the highlights.
Many will puzzle over the lyrics. The songs of side one apparently are supposed to form a program entitled "Aqualung" and thos on side two apparently make up a program entitled "My God." This thesis is that Man in a way created God, but he also created the down-and-out, the "lesser men," whose misfortunes were useful to Man as a reference point in some sort of tortured logic aimed at convincing himself that he was God. Heavy stuff, eh? "Aqualung" is the name Anderson uses to personify the "lesser men" (or, if you wish, the misfortune that Man chooses to create).
The group's sound, as usual, is loose and exotic, like the music of strange folk devils deep in a forest contrived by Orson Welles.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 8/71.
Composer Ian Anderson takes the religious route with a series of highly potent originals. The songs have a strong melodic flavor and are given special delineation by bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who makes his debut with the group here. Sides worth noting are "Locomotive Breath" and "Wond'ring Aloud."
- Billboard, 1971.
Ian Anderson is like the town free thinker. As long as you're stuck in the same town yourself, his inchoate cultural interests and skeptical views on religion and human behavior are refreshing, but meet up with him in the city and he can turn out to be a real bore. Of course, he can also turn out to be Bob Dylan -- it all depends on whether he rejected provincial values out of a thirst for more or out of a reflexive (maybe even somatic) negativism. And on whether he was pretentious only because he didn't know any better. C+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
It was with Aqualung that Tull became a staple on FM rock radio, thanks to dynamic riff-heavy tracks like "My God," "Hymm 43," "Locomotive Breath," "Cross-eyed Mary," "Wind-Up," and the title track. Thematically, many of these songs were vehicles for Anderson's railings about how organized religion had restricted man's relationship with God. * * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Aqualung remains Jethro Tull's crowning achievement, filled with passionate rock and quirky, melodic folk. * * * *
- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Yes were sleeker, Emerson Lake and Palmer were grander, and Genesis was more ingenious. But Jethro Tull were the most frazzled British art rockers of their day. That is never more clear than on the flighty Aqualung, the band's biggest U.S. hit. The title piece begins with some hoary singing from frontman Ian Anderson before everything gets swept up into a fast forest groove. "Cross-Eyed Mary" ushers in the flute-over-drums textures that became a Tull hallmark; some funk anchors the verses, which dovetail into a cranky singalong chorus. There's a prevailing woodwind litheness throughout the album, cut by mad piano runs and the granite solidity of the drums. A tension is in the background -- even quiet folk pieces such as "Cheap Day Return" seem to be under some kind of inescapable pressure. But it's on the hellbent "Locomotive Breath" that Tull bring their frazzle front and center, its barrage of clip-clop rhythms doubling and tripling themselves before Anderson can glide off onto one of his harried flute excursions.
Aqualung was a bear to make, Anderson has said, because of the difficulty of hearing all the parts in a Seventies studio. Today, it's the sparse quality of Aqualung you notice -- the handmade sound of a band working to convey the kind of anxiety that now gets slapped onto tape with much more booming technology but far less care. * * * *
- James Hunter, Rolling Stone, 10/11/01.
Who thought the flute could rock this hard? Words cannot describe the energy, anger, creativity and greatness contained in every '70s high school boy's favorite. Led by captivating pied piper Ian Anderson, whose lyrics are full of religious and social comentary, these minstrels are extremely talented. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
Jethro Tull were hairy prog-rock philosophers who decried organized religion ("Hymn 43") and modern hypocrisy ("Aqualung") while managing to incorporate flute solos. With several FM-radio hits, this was the record that made Tull into a major arena band. The cover painting gave Seventies kids nightmares.
Aqualung was chosen as the 337th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Although, according to Anderson, the album is not a concept album but "a bunch of songs," Aqualung is basically divided into two themes with its original A-side about a lecherous character called Aqualung and the flip a rebuke of organised religion.
Aqualung is notable for the performance of guitarist Martin Barre whose playing on the likes of the title track, "My God" and "Locomotive Breath" turned them into classic rock songs. Another radio favourite, "Cross-Eyed Mary," highlights Tull's trademark flute-over-drums sound. Recorded after original bass player Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond returned to the line-up to replace the departing Glen Cornick, the album hit a US chart peak of Number Seven in June 1971, spending 76 weeks in the charts and Number Four in the UK.
As of 2004, Aqualung was the #90 best-selling album of the 70s.
- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.
Two classic, Christopher Guest-penned movies come to mind on hearing Jethro Tull's Aqualung -- This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. The former is a heavy metal mockumentary; the latter portrays a fictional folk group. From Aqualung onward, the Tull often found themselves placed in the ranks of the former genre while drawing their inspiration from the latter.
The title track opens with typical eclecticism. Calmly strummed acoustic guitar and urbane piano are presented in one measure, a frenzied bass guitar and drums-led passage in the next -- all topped off by a determined electric guitar solo. "Cross-Eyed Mary" follows in a more traditional setting, with vocalist Ian Anderson's trademark flute playing floating over a pulsing Jeffrey Hammond bassline and the elevated swirls of the David Palmer-arranged orchestra. The song then merges into guitar territory, though the piano, cowbell, and return of Anderson's flute play off the rock power of the core guitar, bass, and drum work.
Aqualung's lyrics fit into an impressively unfolded narrative, which relates partly to the experiences of a down-and-out, and help to match the album's singular sound with a mind-opening message suited to the times. The concept is set with written passages on the album's rear, which present a spin on the first chapter of Genesis. For the Aqualung version of the biblical story, man creates God and later Aqualung itself.
An intriguing prog-rock-folk musical landmark, then, though its subject matter did not prevent its riff-friendly tracks becoming FM radio favorites -- or the album becoming a multimillion seller.
- Yoshi Kato, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
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