Minstrel in the Gallery is my favorite Jethro Tull album, rising through my personal top, straight to spot number 1 from the very first listen. Today there’s a very pleasant warmth in the air, a bit of spring floating around in the breeze I suppose, or it might be just the satisfaction of having come to a merry end with the workshop I’ve been involved with that I mentioned last week, so I thought I’d treat myself to this wonderful collection of songs and try and play raconteur again, as I enjoy the day.
It was a difficult thing for me, discovering Jethro Tull. About ten years ago, I had started showing the first signs of the obsession music has become for me, and I was getting my first suggestions from a old family friend of my father’s, my true godfather (that is to say, the guy my dad named me after). At one point he said that I might enjoy Jethro Tull – the name sounded positively esoteric to me – and that I should definitely give them a shot, this without being a fan of theirs himself. I bought a “best of” tape (yes, magnetic tape) with a flowery flutist standing on one leg on the cover. That tape must’ve seen a lot of punishment at the hands of my sub-par cassette player, I don’t think it even works anymore. I never got as many “shut that noise off!!” requests from people as I did about Jethro Tull. My folks hated it, their friends hated it, most of my friends hated it, and yet, for me, they quickly became and still are one of my favorite bands. I guess I must’ve bitten into the whole jester theme they built so much on. Aqualung, A Passion Play, Thick as a Brick, Benefit, all of these albums succeeded themselves in my stereo for years and the crowning jewel of their discography was always Minstrel… I never knew why I was so drawn to the music on this album, until I realized it was probably because of the fact that Ian Anderson seems to have put his irony on pause on this one, from a structural, political point of view, and just went ahead and recorded his musical ideas. I know this seems like an odd statement to make, but Minstrel in the Gallery seems to me to be the most musically-focused J-Tull album – less flirtatious with the idea of a “concept album”, or the idea of making fun of “concept albums”, and more interested in simply sounding excellent, retaining coherence and focus.
I guess from a certain point of view, Minstrel in the Gallery might be though of as one of the milder J-Tull albums, the more… how should I say… forgettable ones. Indeed, the band doesn’t seem to play a lot of material from it live, do they? I’ve seen a few of their concert DVDs and rarely does a track from Minstrel make it on the playlist. I’m not sure why that is – it might have to do with the inclusion of the string arrangements on the record – because the songs themselves are amazing couplings of acoustic brilliance and hard rock of the sort and quality that most other J-Tull albums don’t really explore (at least the first decade or so, what they did during the eighties isn’t all that clear to me, to be honest). Even the title track starts off as a complex, disjointed acoustic track only to become a complex, disjointed and totally hard rocking electric number. The whole folk-prog-rock aesthetic Jethro Tull found for themselves is eminently summarized on this album, at the peak of their creative output, so why there’s so little mention of it later is a bit of mystery to me (it might be because it came right after Ian Anderson’s divorce and it had a sort-of therapeutic quality for him).
In any case, the music is sonic spring to my ears. Cynical and melancholy lyrics aside, the chords, the progressions in the tracks have an introspective quality to them which, simply put, makes me feel safe and rejuvenated. “One white duck times zero to the power of ten equals nothing at all” is to this day my favorite Jethro Tull song, changing in mid-flight and grafting an intimate, personal feel with a razor-sharp, witty construction, which feels hollow, saddened and slightly pointless. There’s a delicate sort of drama behind this track (and this album in general), a feeling of defeat, coupled with fascinating intelligence. This is the kind of album that sounds like a goodbye letter written more for the writer than for the recipient, a confession and struggle to analyze and understand, performed with impeccable timing and wit, but ultimately aware of its uselessness. I couldn’t find such wealth of emotion in any other Jethro Tull album, given that Ian Anderson comes across as uncompromisingly cerebral fellow, able to ridicule his own frustrations most of the time. Jethro Tull’s music is more human on Minstrel in the Gallery than anywhere else, and that’s why I love it so.
And talking about lyrics, there was an anecdote about Ian Anderson and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, which sort-of explains the… animosity between them, shall we say. It seems Ian Anderson once said that with his lyrics and Led Zeppelin’s music, they’d really have a good band going, a statement with which Robert Plant took great offense. And yet I can’t help but agree with Ian Anderson when I listen to these lines, sung in his cold, flickering, twisting voice: “There’s no double-lock defense; there’s no chain on my door. / I’m available for consultation, / But remember your way in is also my way out, / and love’s four-letter word is no compensation.” I’m not one to trust myself when it comes to literary quality of lyrics, they’re basically the last thing on my mind when I listen to an album, but these stuck with me since I was in ninth grade, and that must account for something.
Anyway, time I ended this tirade. I hope you enjoy Minstrel in the Gallery, and if not, I turn to another of Ian Anderson’s lyrics, from a different album, which I suppose stand at the foot of this whole blog: “I may make you think but I can’t make you feel.”