By the time of 1980’s A, Jethro Tull’s remarkable run of globe-straddling success had peaked. It was their first album not to make the US Top 20 since their 1968 debut, and in a Britain dazzled by Tubeway Army and The Pretenders, Tull were suddenly the oldest of hats.
A wasn’t even supposed to be a Jethro Tull album. Instead, Ian Anderson brought in keyboards/electronic violin virtuoso Eddie Jobson (Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa), Jobson’s pal Mark Craney, formerly Tommy Bolin’s drummer, and Tull’s Martin Barre and Dave Pegg for a solo album. To Anderson’s lasting regret, his label Chrysalis insisted it being credited to the mothership.
This whopping box features five extra tracks; a 1980 Los Angeles show remixed by Steve Wilson which features a heroic assault on Heavy Horses and Songs From The Wood at its most spring-heeled.
Wilson has also remixed a second version of the album to sonically enhanced effect, and there’s the endearingly daft, David Mallet-directed, part live, part concept video Slipstream, on which Anderson takes his Aqualung character for another spin around the block.
Four decades on, Anderson’s attempts to drag Tull into the 80s seem quaint, but Jobson’s keyboards wash makes it unique in the catalogue. As a result, this bridge between idiosyncratic Tull and more conventionally rocking Tull divides opinion like no other album, but the years have been kind.
Other than the wholly out of context instrumental The Pine Marten’s Jig, A swapped bucolic rusticity harkening to a sepia-tinted past for contemporary issues, such as that year’s Iranian Embassy Siege on Crossfire, accidental nuclear war on Fylingdale Flyer, and less accidental nuclear war on Protect & Survive.
To top it all, they toured wearing jump suits. For such a blatant attempt to embrace the zeitgeist, it stands up rather well. But it’s not without faults. Working John, Working Joe is a sneery take on the lower orders, and Uniform’s line ‘strange foreign chaps in white bed sheets’ is, shall we say, of its time.
Elsewhere, though, Black Sunday is Anderson in unusually sensitive mood, while And Further Along shows he could do thoughtful end-of-the-world laments too.
Ultimately, A isn’t one of the great Jethro Tull albums, but it’s more than the runt of the litter. These six discs show why.