Jethro Tull: Comparing “A Passion Play” and “Thick as a Brick”

Jethro Tull's two albumsJethro Tull released A Passion Play in 1973 after abandoning efforts to record a different album. Fans were excited to learn that the music would follow a similar structure to the previous hit, the masterful epic Thick as a Brick. But the new album left many fans and critics disappointed. I remember my eagerness for the album’s release, and my own befuddlement after listening to it the first time. It had much of the same inventiveness as Thick as a Brick, and certainly had engaging ideas and tunes. But I had a harder time following it musically, with its frequent changes of material, interruptions, and interwoven themes. Only much later have I come to fully appreciate the album’s charms.

A Passion Play

The story follows a pilgrim who traverses the afterlife, visiting then rejecting heaven as well as hell before settling on a third way. In Ian Anderson’s typical tongue-in-cheek style, the lyrics offer a half-serious yet half-joking commentary on evil and good. However, many listeners perceived a certain pretentiousness.

A Passion Play is more ambitious musically compared to its predecessor. Whereas Thick as a Brick focuses on transforming material when it recurs, A Passion Play interweaves its themes. For example, the main theme—a ballad with the repeated phrase “there was a hush in the passion play”—is interrupted with a faster instrumental interlude before returning. An uptempo theme that begins “lover of the black and white” is interrupted by a theme heard earlier (“all along the icy wastes”) before returning. Such dramatic, contrasting “bridges” occur several times in the album’s “songs.”

On a smaller scale, musical tags from different sections occur throughout, often serving as endings. These tags provide a unifying feature. But they can confuse a listener more accustomed to traditional landmarks that distinguish structure, such as verse, chorus, bridge, solo, etc. At least it felt that way to me until the material became more familiar.

The musical ideas flow in an interwoven episodic manner. For example, if a letter represents each section, the pattern would be A-B-C-D-C-E-F-G-F-H-E-H, etc. You can see how this might sound baffling on first listen. Similarly, the tags appear in unexpected places, so the ending of one section sounds similar to another section. In the middle of the music, a larger interruption intrudes, “The Story of the Hair that Lost Its Spectacles.” An orchestra accompanies this humorous children’s story. In every way—orchestration, theme, presentation—the story contrasts with the album’s collection of songs. Such interludes, usually secular and often humorous, form a traditional part of medieval passion plays on which the album is loosely based.

Thick as a Brick

In many ways, Thick as a Brick has a more straightforward approach, which likely explains its greater appeal. For one thing, the “songs” proceed episodically, but in a cyclic manner, rather than as interwoven sections. The only interweaving occurs at the very end, where it builds tension toward the climax. This makes the music easier to follow.

Secondly, the overall structure grows in power during the second half from slower and looser sections to a strong drive toward the finish. This creates a more dramatic, satisfying result. Finally, the ear can hear the musical transformation more easily. The second theme (“see there a son is born”) first appears in 5/4 meter, then later appears in 6/4 meter with new lyrics. And just prior to that recurrence, the transformed material serves as an outro (which closed the original side 1) and an intro (which opened side 2). It also appears one final time toward the album’s end with the return of the main theme, creating a strong, cyclical finish.

The lyrics, intentionally a pretentious poem supposedly written by an 8-year-old fictional genius named Milton Bostock, deliberately spoof the idea of the concept album. Add to that the album’s packaging as a parody of a small town newspaper, with crosswords, articles, advertisements, and a fake critical review of the album.

These reasons help explain why Thick as a Brick is a masterpiece. But A Passion Play is still a good album, even if it fails to match the high water mark of its predecessor. Jethro Tull produced two great albums worthy of our attention.

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