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Tull's second progressive rock masterpiece
on 11 November 2013
The controversy surrounding this album is one of the most puzzling in the history of popular music. So, 40 years after its release, it is perhaps time to lay some of the misconceptions to rest. First, it is a complete myth that 'A Passion Play' divided opinion amongst Tull fans when it was released in 1973. In fact, the vast majority of Tull fans loved it. It went straight to Number One in the US album chart, and was highly successful in the UK as well. Most Tull fans regarded it as a magnificent successor to 'Thick as a Brick', although I can certainly remember debating which of the two was better. The second myth is that it was universally reviled by music critics. It is true that it went down badly with some elements of the rock press who found themselves intellectually challenged by progressive rock's experimentation with longer, more ambitious musical forms. But some critics showered praise on the album - including Derek Jewell, who was the Sunday Times' popular music critic as well as the author of a distinguished biography of Duke Ellington. People with that kind of pedigree usually know what they are talking about. The main difference between 'A Passion Play' and TAAB is that it is a flawed masterpiece, whereas TAAB is virtually perfect as an extended form rock composition. Against this, however, some sections of 'A Passion Play' are absolutely stunning - the first 10 minutes for example, or the acoustic section at the beginning of Part 2 ('Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs').
With a new version digitally re-mastered by Steve Wilson in the offing, Ian Anderson is currently giving interviews in which he seems to be actively marketing the re-mix while simultaneously dismissing the artistic merits of the original - a somewhat contradictory position for an individual of Anderson's stature to take about his own work. It is difficult to believe that this is how he really feels about an album most Tull fans regard as one of his most brilliant creations. You don't have to listen to 'A Passion Play' for very long to realise that you're listening to something very special indeed. It's unique music - melodically accessible and haunting, but also complex, dissonant and full of unusual chromatic progressions. It draws on rock, jazz and folk influences, but somehow manages to transcend all these familiar musical categories to create something quite extraordinary and unprecedented. It can't really be compared with anything else, although the aggressive driving sound of the more sinister sections in both Parts 1 and 2 recall the atmosphere of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and Khachaturian's famous 'Sabre Dance'. And the lyrics are some of the best Anderson has ever written. To anyone with an attention span exceeding five minutes, it's fairly clear that this album is an artistic triumph, rather than an exercise in pretension.
Another myth about the album is that it is lyrically obscure. It isn't. The lyrical imagery is very powerful, but completely intelligible. Like TAAB, it's a simple rites of passage story set to music - in this case the theme being the premature death of a young man and his subsequent journey through the afterlife and eventual voluntary return to earthly existence, whereas TAAB was about the transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood.
I don't profess to understand why Anderson is so dismissive of 'A Passion Play' when it so clearly represents a continuation of the creative peak Tull reached with TAAB a year earlier. It is certainly a much darker album, as befits its lyrical theme, and it has noticeable flaws, primarily the unsubtle organ and synthesiser link passages in Part 2. But leaving aside these minor shortcomings, this album is clearly one of the best albums Tull ever made, and certainly one of the greatest examples of the progressive rock genre. I suspect that Anderson just finds it hard to accept that this was where his artistic creativity peaked - and that it coincided with a critical backlash. He's entitled to his own opinion, of course, but trying to marginalise the album is a different matter and an attempt to re-write history. Anderson once claimed (perhaps tongue in cheek?) that only a handful of fans have listened to the album all the way through from beginning to end. How would he know that - has he asked them all individually? It's slightly insulting to your fans to make that kind of comment when millions of people have taken the trouble to buy your album, listen to it, and reach their own conclusions. A lot of progressive rock fans also enjoy classical and jazz music, and are totally comfortable with the idea of listening to a piece of music 40 minutes long. It's patronising to suggest otherwise.
The simple truth about 'A Passion Play' is that it is a complex, ambitious, but largely successful extended form composition that was way ahead of its time when released. The likelihood of Anderson (or anyone else for that matter) writing anything as rewarding as this again is virtually zero. The history of popular music is littered with examples of similarly ambitious projects that proved too much for the critics at the time of release (Ellington's longer suites being the most obvious example). However, as an album 'A Passion Play' has stood the test of time extremely well, and it sounds as good and fresh today as it did 40 years ago.
Postscript: unfortunately, Amazon's practice of publishing all reviews of this album under a single heading makes it impossible for anyone who has reviewed previous editions to comment on the 2014 re-mix, so I will have to add my comments by way of a postscript. The new re-mix is interesting, and most dedicated Tull fans will want to own it, but it is not as good as the 2012 TAAB re-mix which really sparkled. The approach is different - Ian Anderson and Steve Wilson seem to have started from the premise that the original mix of APP had definite flaws which required fixing. Unfortunately, in attempting to do this, some of the magic of the earlier version has been lost. It sounds like a conscious attempt to re-arrange the music to rectify perceived shortcomings, rather than a celebration of the original album's virtues. The additional music in Part Two, omitted from the 1973 release, is worth having but not exactly essential. Moreover, the inclusion of a lyric sheet for the Chateau d'Isaster Tapes (CD2) merely highlights what many of us already knew, namely that this material is distinctly inferior to both TAAB and APP, which probably explains why the band decided to abandon it. Musically, it is interesting and sometimes excellent, but the lyrical theme of nature's cruelty was explored better in 'Warchild', whilst the related theme of humanity's passion for life is covered more poetically in APP. So this material too is not exactly essential. APP remains one of the very best examples of the 1970s progressive rock genre, so it's probably best to regard this version as just another performance (i.e. interpretation) of the piece rather than a definitive enhancement of the original release, in the same way that one would when comparing different performances of a great classical symphony.