After the two epic concept albums Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, 1974 saw Jethro Tull go back to “normal” albums, meaning a bunch of songs without any specific connection between them. The first of them, Warchild, was unfortunately not as brilliant as previous Tull recordings.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad album at all. Actually, when I think about most of the songs, they’re much more than decent, and there are a couple of real gems. However, the album feels somewhat “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” (guess where this quote comes from). It never properly hooks you (well, at least me!) for some reason, unlike other band efforts.
First of all, it’s interesting to point out that Warchild was originally meant to accompany a film project, specifically a metaphysical black comedy about a teenage girl in the afterlife. Kind of weird, yep. I’m curious about how that film would have been, especially because Monty Python veteran John Cleese was penciled in as “humour consultant”. It Monty Python were somehow involved, it looked interesting. Pity nothing came out of it.
The album cover is a funny one, with the front cover being a composite photograph featuring a positive colour print of Melbourne at night (no idea why, but I kind of like it because I went there a few months ago, and yes I know that doesn’t make much sense), and a negative print of a studio photo of Ian Anderson.
The back cover, on the other hand, contains images of people, including the five members of the band, friends, wives, girlfriends, Chrysalis Records staff, and manager Terry Ellis, all related to the song titles. Anderson's personal touring assistant (and future wife) Shona Learoyd appears as a ringmaster, while Terry Ellis appears as a (I’m quoting Wikipedia here by the way) leopard skin-clad, umbrella-waving aggressive businessman.
Three of the songs are leftovers from those recording sessions that took place after Thick as a Brick and didn’t finally come to anything: Only Solitaire, Bungle in the Jungle and Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day. Although some parts of A Passion Play were inspired by those sessions, these songs (as well as the rest of the Warchild album) have a much lighter mood, as they are both less somber and less intrincate. The second is a simple catchy single that was well received by the radio, while the first and third are delightful acoustic songs.
It is in fact the acoustic stuff (the aforementioned songs plus the lovely Ladies) what probably stands out from the rest on this album. Skating Away is particularly beautiful, one my all time Jethro Tull favourites, at least these last few months. Several live versions can be found online, and, although the one from 1977 is probably the best, the one from 1980 is the most interesting, and a good example of the skill the whole band had. In that version, Anderson plays acoustic guitar, David Pegg and Eddie Jobson, who then played bass, the first, and violin and keyboards, the second, also play different kinds of guitars (Pegg plays an electric mandolin, I’d say), and then-drummer Mark Craney plays the bass. So much guitar… and yet Martin Barre doesn’t play. In conclusion, all members except from Anderson switch instruments (why does the bassist play the guitar and the drummer play the bass?) and, while there are three guitars, the guitarist is taking a break. Brilliant. Sorry for the overexcited rant, by the way.
On the other hand, although the mood, as I mentioned, is lighter, the lyrics are not necessarily so. Several critics are found: of established society (Queen and Country and Bungle in the Jungle), religion (Two Fingers; not surprisingly, this is a rearrangement of Lick Your Fingers Clean, a leftover from the Aqualung sessions) and critics (the peaceful sounding and yet hilarious Only Solitaire).
On a different note, we can hear Anderson flirting with the sax for the last time, most noticeably in the title track. Back-Door Angels is dense and whereas some passages are very cool, it gives an impression of aimless wandering for the most part. The same thing more or less happens with Sealion, although it’s ok because a wonderfully lunatic outtake was made out of it: Sealion II, lyrics by Jeffrey Hammond. I promise he wasn’t on drugs when he thought of them. At least not officially. Also, The Third Hoorah may be excruciatingly repetitive or totally brilliant depending on your mood, but there’s no denying that the instrumentation is amazing.
The 2002 remastered version has a few more bonus tracks apart from Sealion II, and most of them are worth mentioning: Quartet is weird but cool in its own way, Warchild Waltz is a brilliant piece of classical music made out of various themes used in the album (and it's also blocked on youtube for some reason I don't understand), Glory Row will lift your spirits and Rainbow Blues is a song that should have never been left out of the album.
All in all, a good album, but not a classic. Not as good as its predecessor and not as good as its successor (you’ll see). But it has Skating Away.
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