Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson: Thick As A Brick 2 (TAAB2)
“Really don't mind if you sit this one out.
Those words have rattled around in my brain for decades, ever since my initial exposure to Thick As A Brick not long after its 1972 release. So young was I at the time of my exposure to the album that I didn't think to question what the titular phrase might mean (in short, dim-witted), or perhaps it was simply that I was so caught up in the music that I couldn't be bothered to analyze the lyrics. Regardless, that seminal album turned me, along with hordes of others, into a Tull convert, and I remained a devoted listener for many years thereafter, dutifully adding to my collection every Tull release up to Heavy Horses. In the years following, the band and I parted ways, even though I'd occasionally wonder what Anderson and company might be doing, until word got out that, of all things, a sequel to Thick As A Brick was in the pipeline. Generally, it's seen as a colossal misstep for a band to revisit an earlier landmark, given that the result will likely be more embarrassment than triumph, so one can legitimately question Anderson's decision to do so. (As an interesting footnote, a re-acquaintance with one-time Gentle Giant member and now-record executive Derek Shulman helped get the ball rolling when he, like others before him, pitched the idea of a Thick As A Brick sequel to Anderson.) Having said that, the new album is hardly an embarrassment, though it'll also not likely displace Aqualung or the original Thick As A Brick as the fanatic's favourite. What it is is a credible collection of new Tull music that provides the long-time devotee with another enjoyable go-round from Anderson and company.
Certainly the story-line is inspired: whereas the original features lyrics credited to the fictitious child character, Gerald Bostock, the new one ponders what, forty years later, the now-fifty-year-old Bostock might be doing. And so, instead of imagining one particular trajectory his life might have followed, Anderson contemplates a handful of possible directions by presenting portraits of Bostock alter-egos—banker, merchant, etc. In Anderson's own words, “As we baby-boomers look back on our own lives, we must often feel an occasional ‘what-if' moment. Might we, like Gerald, have become instead preacher, soldier, down-and-out, shopkeeper, or finance tycoon?” Though his Dickensian universe is peopled with perverted housemasters and corrupt bankers, Anderson brings a wry perspective and his customary dry wit to the material, and treats his dramatis personae with empathy in recognizing how lives develop unpredictably and end up in places other than originally envisioned—divergence ultimately leading to convergence plus some measure of resolution and acceptance.
It's clear that Anderson's melodic gifts haven't deserted him, and his vocals and acoustic guitar- and flute-playing skills show little audible rust. The group sound replicates the one on the first Thick As A Brick (Hammond organ, flute, glockenspiel, and acoustic and electric guitar, in other words) with Anderson eschewing saxophone altogether (in the liner notes, he writes that he did get “the beast-of-plumbing…out of very cold storage and give it a whirl, only to remember why I hate it so much”). In place of the powerful unit that recorded Songs From the Wood, the band featured on the new recording—John O'Hara (keyboards), David Goodier (bass), Florian Ophale (guitar), and Scott Hammond (drums)—is more workmanlike in executing the charts unerringly but with a little less of the dynamic intensity of yore. Tracks like “Pebbles Instrumental,” “Banker Bets, Banker Wins,” and “Old School Song” find the band firmly in the pocket, so to speak, expertly bringing Anderson's intricate charts to life. Ophale's guitar playing sometimes flirts with rock cliches, but that's pretty much the only sore spot, instrumentally speaking.
The album is faithful to the Prog-rock tradition in its ambitious construction and occasional time signature trickery and, true to Prog form, a small number of motifs repeatedly surface, but TAAB2 is hardly overblown and doesn't sink under the weight of excessive conceptual baggage. Anderson was wise to structure the album as related sub-sections, as it allows memorable self-contained songs to emerge over the course of the album (the affecting “Wootton Bassett Town,” for example, and rueful “A Change of Horses”), and folk, jazz, and rock are naturally the main ingredients in the band's complex broth. Musically, the two albums are separate entities, the sequel largely opting to steer clear of the familiar terrain of its precursor except in the subtlest of manner, one notable exception occurring in the dying moments when the familiar “So, you ride yourselves over the fields... ” refrain appears. Knowing winks to Tull's past also surface via passing references to Passion Play and locomotive breath. Is TAAB2 equal to the first Thick As A Brick? Of course not, but to some degree that's partially attributable to how audacious and original the first one sounded when it first appeared.