Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood: 40th Anniversary Edition album review

Country life never sounded so vibrant: a reissue to rejoice in

Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood album artwork

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The greatest turbo-charged, progged-up folk album ever? If the term “folk” to you conjures up images of cheesecloth-clad Morris dancers with fingers in their ears shaking bells and singing fol-de-riddle-o in Sidmouth, set aside such prejudices and give this a blast. It’s never going to sound better than it does now, with a Steven Wilson remix, and it sounded preposterously great before. It’s also Jethro Tull at their most concise: no 20-minute suites here, but plenty of short, catchy songs. Yet with dazzling musicality they cram more ideas into these aural rural songs than many bands manage in years. Rousing, energised stuff, its ‘kitchen prose and gutter rhymes’ will make you feel much better.

Tull’s tenth album, it came about in 1977 after Ian Anderson had responded to the advent of punk with the misunderstood Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die! He’d been mixing with the folk rock scene (producing Steeleye Span), got married and bought a country home, and wanted to commit to “English” culture. So the band’s sound mutated, with keyboardist David Palmer bringing in classical shades and Martin Barre’s guitars eschewing solos to deploy incisive precision. Anderson wrote verse inspired by medieval Britain and said it was nothing to do with folk music, which may just have been a shrewd thing to say as the punk wars raged.

It’s the melodies and harmonies which first attract. The title song, in which countless adrenalised things happen at once, is a jewel, the vocals poised between urgent and celebratory. Cup Of Wonder and Jack-In-The-Green likewise locate the interface of acoustic whimsy and electric drive, and quasi-folk songs regarding Solstice and whistling emerge playfully and purposefully. It’s an album juiced up with joy.

Forty years on, Wilson appreciates this, aware that it’s unique among the Tull canon, and the 21st-century separation in his polishing respects the original freshness. The first disc here adds unreleased contemporaneous tracks like the substantial find Old Aces Die Hard (recently retitled by Anderson in honour of Lemmy) and Working John, Working Joe. The next two CDs compile two previously unheard US live shows from ’77, remixed by Jakko Jakszyk, with a setlist – tight, intricate – blending old and then-new. Then there are two DVDs: one audio of hi-res mixes, one of a two-hour show in Maryland, November ’77. Add to this a 96-page book (with Anderson, looking weirdly like Coldplay’s Chris Martin in the candid/funny photos, giving a track-by-track) and you’ll never want to be out of the woods. A Beltane belter.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.