Jethro Tull (VII): bombastic and melancholic

Written on the 28th of September 2014

In my last post about Jethro Tull, I said Warchild is not as good as the next album the band would release. I guess that, after more than a month, it’s time to explain.

It was 1975 and Ian Anderson, I believe (feel free to correct me), was going through a divorce. This not precisely pleasant situation didn’t stop him from making music, although it did influence the mood of the album. Minstrel in the Gallery combines some relatively hard rocking moments with many acoustic sections that sound reflective, nostalgic, sad.

Let’s wait a second though, first it’s time to quickly write a couple of facts about the album. I mean, album facts that are not specifically about the quality or meaning of the music. Ok I’m getting stuck here. What I wanted to say, first of all, is that the album was recorded in Monte Carlo, in their four-wheeled recording studio, the Maison Rouge Mobile. It was apparently the first of some recordings made there. Second, that not only Anderson, Barre, Hammond, Barlow (what a drummer, in the 1978-1979 posts I’ll talk more about him) and Evans are the musicians here. Katharine Thulborn (cello), Patrick Halling, Elizabeth Edwards, Rita Eddowes and Bridget Procter (violin) play an important part here, under the guidance, as always, of David Palmer, who was still not listed as a permanent band member at the time. The music, not surprisingly, was composed by the ever-inspired and unstoppable Anderson, with only Martin Barre sharing credits on the title track (at least according to Wikipedia, the album notes don’t say so).

Back to the music, then. As I said, there’s a big contrast between the delicately (often) sad moments and the bombastic rocking ones. Sometimes the contrast comes from comparing two songs, sometimes a song changes its mood and tempo in the way only Tull can do. Three are the songs that fit into the second category: the three first songs on the album and that mini-Thick as a Brick that is Baker Street Muse.

The title track, which, as it happens often, is not the best song on the album, is divided on a slow acoustic part featuring Anderson’s voice followed by one of the few moments on this album where Martin Barre can go wild. After a while, the rest of the band decides to join Barre in his rocking frenzy.

In Cold Wind to Valhalla, the change is much more unexpected and the song goes from elegant and solemn to absolutely chaotic. Not to worry, Ian and the boys know how to make chaos sound good. I’ve heard several versions: the original, and a couple of remastered ones. Depending on the version, the string quartet or the chaos are highlighted more.

The lusty Black Satin Dancer (desperate breathing/ tongue nipple-teasing) is also an example of this. Some may argue it’s a bit too pompous, but I have to admit I’ve grown fond of this song over time. Baker Street Muse is a sixteen minute epic composed of five sub-songs (Baker Street Muse, Pig-Me and the Whore, Nice Little Tune, Crash Barrier Waltzer and Mother England Reverie); more than enough time to change the tempo and mood quite a few times.

The other three songs are delightful acoustics. Actually, not really, Grace is kind of pointless, to be honest, it’s a nice little epilogue, and in the remastered version, not even that, as there are more tracks coming. Requiem and One White Duck/ 010 = Nothing at All, on the other hand, are just lovely. The first one is extremely sad but oh so touching; the second is also melancholic in its first half, when the string musicians make their presence noted.

The bonus tracks include two better than average acoustic fillers (Summerday Sands and March the Mad Scientist) and the wonderful Pan Dance, which sounds like a classical dance piece. Many people argue that Bourée is the best Tull instrumental, but with songs like this one, a second thought must be given.

To sum up, here are some conclusions, thrown here in a list-like and not very poetic way: the album is excellent with not a single bad song on it (Grace’s not that good, but it’s only fifty seconds); the string instruments play an important part and their inclusion is definitely a winning move; the contrast between tip-toey acoustic and energetic, sometimes corrosive moments makes Minstrel in the Gallery an album which never gets dull; finally, the general mood is rather melancholic, maybe because of the divorce thing I mentioned before.

By the way, here’s a playlist with the whole album, in case you’re interested in the rest. I’d put links to all the songs here but I think it may make some devices work too slowly.

As a final note, this was Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s final album with the band. Soon after this, he would go back to painting, his first love, and would stop playing the bass forever, according to Ian Anderson’s notes in the remastered edition.


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