on 19 April 2014
So what's the verdict on 'Homo Erraticus', the ambitious, bold and eagerly awaited new concept album from Ian Anderson and his band? This is a difficult album for a Jethro Tull fan to review with any objectivity, as its release coincides with the formal announcement that Jethro Tull as a band (as opposed to a repertoire of music) is no more. Of course, we all knew that from the relative lack of new activity over the past ten years. It became clear in the late 1990s that Ian Anderson was starting to save his best new songwriting material for his solo albums. The other band members must have known then, or at least suspected, that the game was up. Still, it is sad to have it formally confirmed. Tull had survived longer than most of their peer group from the late 1960s, and the world of popular music will mourn their passing as a cohesive unit.
Against this background, there will inevitably be a temptation to benchmark this new solo venture from Anderson against Tull's best work from the past. This sets the bar very high indeed. Is 'Homo Erraticus' as inspired and brilliant as 'Thick as a Brick' or 'Passion Play'? Of course not. Does this really matter? No - it is surely enough that Anderson still has the energy and creativity to even consider making a full-blown concept album at the age of 66. That it happens to be a very good one is an added bonus.
The most striking thing about 'Homo Erraticus' is that it is clearly a Jethro Tull album in all but name - much more so than any of Anderson's previous solo ventures. In fact, it is probably the best Tull album that could possibly be made without the involvement of the incomparable Martin Barre. It is sad that Martin is no longer a member of the band, but there is no doubt that this is a bona fide album from the Tull repertoire, with the authentic, unique progressive rock sound that characterised the group's best work of the 1970s. Compared to Thick as a Brick 2, the album presents a harder-rocking, more intricately woven sound. In this sense, it is more like 'Roots to Branches' than any of Anderson's previous solo albums. The band really swings and sounds far more spontaneous than on TAAB 2. The musical arrangements are also more richly ornamented, the sound production vastly superior. (This album really does deserve to be heard on a good Hi-Fi system.) There is more musical detail, and the ideas are generally fresher and full of surprise. It is an album that repays repeated listening, as there is far too much to take in on a first hearing. The melodic lines are also intriguing - you're unlikely to be humming them after a first listen, but they hook you in and you want to start listening to the album again as soon as it's finished. This is the hallmark of all great Tull music.
After reading some critical reviews here on Amazon, I approached this album with relatively low expectations of Ian Anderson's voice, but I was pleasantly surprised. He is on good form throughout, despite the fact that some of the material is lyrically very challenging.
On balance, 'Homo Erraticus' probably deserves a 5 star rating. Musically, it is the most powerful and dynamic album Anderson has made since 'Roots to Branches', whilst the grandeur and ambition of its concept and lyrical ideas actually surpass that album and are much closer in spirit to TAAB and Passion Play. If I have awarded it 4 stars rather than 5, it is because some of the songs seem a bit weighed down by the wordiness of Anderson's lyrics. This has been a problem on a number of his recent CDs, starting with 'The Secret Language of Birds' in 2000. It is not that the lyrics are obtuse; the issue is that they don't always sit well on the musical line, giving rise to a sense of over-crowding in the vocal delivery. (Joni Mitchell's songwriting often suffers from a similar problem.) I would like to give Ian some friendly advice. This band really knows how to rock. Allow them to stretch out and extemporise. You don't need to be singing all the time. The lyrics are, of course, supremely literate, as we have come to expect of Anderson. But it would do no harm for him to give his voice a rest occasionally and the band more space. The instrumental passages are superb and offer some of the best moments on the album, indeed (in the case of the stupendous 'Tripudium ad Bellum'), some of the best moments in the entire Tull catalogue.
Minor quibbles aside, 'Homo Erraticus' is solid testament to Ian Anderson's enduring genius as a musician and composer, after an amazing forty seven years in the music business. The flow of melodic invention continues unabated, like a mountain stream from an unknown infinite source, truly astounding for someone who has been writing and playing music continuously for over four decades. No-one else has such a total command of the sonic possibilities of rock music, qualities which can - in the right hands - give it a truly orchestral character, capable of expressing profound ideas and emotions. In essence, this is a suite of songs cleverly linked by common lyrical and musical themes, rather than a collection of individual songs, a point some of the one-line, one-star reviews posted on Amazon to drag down the overall rating seem to have missed. I think Jethro Tull fans are really going to like this album, and I'm looking forward to hearing it performed live in London in late May.
Postscript: 'Homo Erraticus' is every bit as impressive in live performance as it is on record. As for the album itself, it is challenging initially, but continues to get better with each fresh listen. A late classic from the underrated wandering minstrel of British popular music.