Few phrases chill the blood like ‘a 1980s Jethro Tull album’. And the most chilling Jethro Tull album of all is A. Released at the dawn of that roller-coaster decade and originally envisaged as an Ian Anderson solo album before the label strong-armed him into putting the band’s name to it, it’s a schizophrenic, ill-judged mash-up of Tull’s folk-prog past and a Tomorrow’s World future ruled by creaking synthesisers.
It’s tough to pick out the worst offender on it, though Batteries Not Included is up there – the equivalent of your granddad putting on a silver-painted cardboard box and a hat made from a colander and pretending he’s a robot: irredeemable and undignified. Luckily the other four albums in this five-disc budget box are better.
Released two years after A, Broadsword And The Beast largely atones for its sins by shifting emphasis away from the circuit-board electronics and back towards guitars. It’s not perfect – the initially promising Flying Colours is kneecapped by those godawful keyboards – but Broadsword is windswept and dramatic and the deceptively balladic Slow Marching Band could be read as a big “fuck off” to former drummer Barriemore Barlow, a typically Anderson-esque sentiment.
But the crown jewels in this collection are the elemental albums released between 1977 and 1979 and retrospectively dubbed The Folk Trilogy. Partly inspired by Anderson’s move to a 16th-century farmhouse in Buckinghamshire, 1977’s remarkable Songs From The Wood dispenses with the arch concepts and musical intricacy in favour of verdant simplicity and a fascination with English folkore (it also threw up one of rock’s great Christmas songs in Ring Out, Solstice Bells).
Almost as good is the following year’s Heavy Horses – an earthy album in every sense right down to its literal and metaphorical agricultural themes, could act as an unofficial rallying cry for the Countryside Alliance. It’s just a pity that 1979’s over-cooked Stormwatch ended the trilogy on a disappointingly fussy note. Still, its two immediate predecessors remain as essential in their own way as Aqualung – and not a silver cardboard box in sight.