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Ian Anderson: Homo Erraticus

The Tull legend’s sixth solo album has its moments, whatever he’s on about...

To resurrect one of prog’s most celebrated fictional characters after 40 years might be considered ambitious enough. But to extend his rehabilitation to a further album might be considered a dangerous Victorian folly. Nonetheless, one thing Ian Anderson has never been guilty of is unnecessary caution. Hence the pioneering one-track album that was 1972’s Thick As A Brick – based, we were told, on an epic poem by schoolboy prodigy Gerald Bostock – and, four decades later, the lengthy consideration of Bostock’s fate, 2012 sequel, TAAB2. Now, however, the plot has thickened yet further.

Bostock has reunited with his would-be biographer, as a scribe in his own right, penning a sprawling, free-associating set of lyrics for this follow-up album. These, in turn, are said to be ‘based on an unpublished manuscript by amateur historian Ernest T Parritt (1865-1928)’, examining key events in British history by way of a series of visions of past and future scenarios. Phew…

If all those literary conceits sound a little daunting, the musical accompaniment of Homo Erraticus is easier to digest. Opening Chronicles, the first part of three, Doggerland instantly sets up the Tull template of coruscating rock guitar, keyboard flourishes and Anderson’s freewheeling flute, as winningly malevolent hooks draw you in.

But you must make what you will of a tale that begins with references to ice age pre-history, then moves quickly onto farmhouses in Tuscany, then to the enduring image: ‘All across the Doggerland… across with luggage, kids and sunscreen, melted mortgage dreams that died’. The poetic ‘vision’ of Parritt/Bostock/Anderson gets no clearer on Enter The Uninvited, which opens with references to the Roman invasion then rockets forth through modern history. We can safely conclude that ‘Pizza palace, burger kingdom, cocaine cola, nylon stockings…’ are not the exact words of the late Mr Parritt, unless he possessed an ability not only to predict history but also make questionable puns about it.

It’s entertainingly head-spinning stuff at times, but this list-based approach to songwriting has its drawbacks. At regular intervals, this particular composition resembles the theme tune from Are You Being Served?. We’re on safer ground with feisty folk-rock like The Engineer and Turnpike Inn, but the scattershot approach to storytelling can make it hard to get to grips with. And compared to TAAB2’s more roundly drawn characters, these songs provide hazy, sketchy glimpses of past lives that never quite draw us in. Musically, The Pax Britannica is set to a jaunty minstrel ditty that befits the war-free 19th century era it refers to, but Tull fans might find it a little too twee to fully embrace, not least because Anderson sounds uncannily like the medieval minstrel character from children’s TV hit Mike The Knight.

Thankfully, the second half of the album is a more robust affair, notably the second and third suites, which Anderson (or is it Bostock?) has called ‘Prophecies’ and ‘Revelations’. Tripudium Ad Bellum is an instrumental that veers from the bucolic to the spiky and discordant, then After These Wars evokes the post-WW1 period via a sweetly melodic vision of a time ‘when co-op gave us daily bread, penicillin raised the dead, and combine harvesters kept us fed’. Okay, I think we get it now.

New Blood, Old Veins offers a similarly colourful view of a post-austerity Britain of package holidays and youthful rebellion, and if The Browning Of The Green contains some rather debatable sentiments on benefits culture and creeping urbanisation, it’s one of the punchiest numbers on here. Then the final track, Cold Dead Reckoning is a similarly feisty, flinty rocker that observes that ‘We are the tribe that eats itself’. It’s a fine way to round off proceedings, and by this time, the old flutecake has just about rescued the overall album’s shaggy-dog concept from itself.

After several listens, you may only manage to fathom about a third of what Homo Erraticus is trying to say. But as accompaniments to scratching your head go, you could do a lot worse.