In 1971 when Jethro Tull released the seminal “Aqualung”, frontman Ian Anderson was so frustrated with the press mislabeling it a “prog rock concept album” that he set out to give them what he called “the mother of all concept albums”. The result was 1972’s “Thick as a Brick”. The concept was so overblown that the 2 week period of writing and recording was matched by 2 weeks creating the elaborate artwork. “Thick as a Brick” was packaged as a mock 12-page newspaper, The St Cleve Chronicle, featuring the headline story of 8-year old Gerald Bostock whose prodigious writing talent led to a poetry award, subsequently revoked due to the subversive nature of the poem. Gerald’s poem formed the lyrics of the album. To make the concept even more preposterous the album featured just one song, split in two necessarily by the vinyl format. 40 years on Ian Anderson has updated Gerald’s story with “Thick as a Brick 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?”
This is not de facto Jethro Tull. This is Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull. Mainstay Martin Barre’s absence is notable, replaced by the young German guitarist (and Anderson-collaborator since 2003) Florian Opahle. Yet this is quintessential Jethro Tull. The band, along with mixer Steven Wilson, have taken great pains to recreate the instrumentation of the 1972 opus. Fans of the original will notice from the off that the intro picks up the familiar theme that led out side one of the vinyl and faded into side two. Immediately the Jethro Tull fan will be in familiar territory as the intervening 4 decades melt away.
“Thick as a Brick “1972 was a lyrical exploration of young Gerald finding his way in the world. As an everyman character he embodied common concerns. With the sequel Anderson explores the possible pasts Gerald may have had in those 40 years. A soldier perhaps? A disgraced politician? A pantomime-villain banker? A down-and-out fallen on hard times? A man of the cloth? Telling multiple stories and having them converge is not an easy concept to pull off but Anderson, as always, excels. The lyrics are as important to the enjoyment of this album as the music. This is reflected in the DVD edition which not only displays the lyrics onscreen but has an extra with the writer narrating his words as poetry to camera separate from any music. Modern lifestyles are lampooned: the banker drinking Starbucks latte while negative equity destroys his customers; the schoolmaster molesting his charge; TomTom sat-navs, E-Bay, even the humble Fray Bentos pie make this a rich and detailed observation of the many ways we live today and how chance can mould our destinies.
So that’s the concept and the lyrics. What of the music? “TAAB2” is such a wordy album that Anderson’s voice is never more than a few bars away. Thankfully his vocal performance is excellent as are the backing tracks and the instrumental sections – not straight-ahead rock, the twists and turns one would expect are there in abundance as is Anderson’s virtuosic flute playing. Variations on themes from the original can be spotted but there is no lazy recycling of ideas. This is Jethro Tull music in 2012 doffing a cap to their 70s glory days and returning to long-form symphonic prog for the first time in decades but giving it a new twist and incorporating some of the later Jethro Tull sound. The mini-epic “A Change of Horses” features a Celtic folk influence and harks back to the 1978 classic “Heavy Horses”. Elsewhere there are Eastern themes reminiscent of Budapest from 1987’s “Crest of a Knave”.
The original “Thick as a Brick” was a commercial success, topping the US charts, and is widely regarded (much to Anderson‘s amusement) as one of the greatest prog albums of all time. To say “Thick as a Brick 2” is a worthy sequel is praise enough. Be prepared to spend some time with it though, lyric sheet in hand, to fully appreciate the genius of Ian Anderson.