by Geno Thackara
Since we’ve been happy to feature Jethro Tull’s primary members here in these pages recently, I say it’s a good chance to take another look at one of their defining albums too – not just for that reason, but because there’s no better season for it. In the same way perfume makers try to bottle the Tahiti ocean breeze with a hint of macadamia or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be, Songs From the Wood captures a taste of autumn and winter vivid enough to have you feeling the nip of frost. Okay, it also refers to “roses filled with summer rain” and celebrating the new year at Beltane in April, but for me the winter solstice bells win out in the end. In my mind it’s permanently linked with crunching leaves and chilly walks home from school through those months after I first learned about it.
The lads in Tull were always pretty odd ducks in the music world to begin with, which I mean in the best way possible. They started out as mainly an electric blues band, had some weird satirical prog-rock concept albums to their name within a few years, and were willing to throw in folk elements and orchestral strings along the way before later diving into electronics. The group’s mastermind Ian Anderson is too restless to stay in simple 4/4 patterns for too long at a time. He’s more interested in making the melodies and structures a little (or a lot) more complex, then figuring out how to also make them sound perfectly natural and even catchy. When the culture had been over saturated with alternative and grunge for a few years, it was a most refreshing ear-opener for me to discover such an inventive group willing to write elaborate multi-part story songs and put on stage theatrics worthy of Spinal Tap. (Why yes, I was a big nerd as a teenager, thanks for asking.)
By the late ’70s the band was due for another shake-up. Anderson had left London for the countryside and also found some interesting reading material about ley lines, pagan mythology and the like. That imagery led him to base the next album around a theme of British history and folklore, which led to adding some ye-olde-timey elements like lute, harpsichord or glockenspiel alongside the electric guitars and his trademark flutes. The overall result ends up impossible to pigeonhole as just medieval-flavored rock, progressive, folk, old or new. There’s something to appreciate for listeners who like any or all of those things. To round it off after all the quirkiness, the closer “Fires at Midnight” is a quiet love song simple enough for any taste.
Songs From the Wood is arguably the most musically intricate album in the Jethro Tull catalogue, yet it’s also by far the most playful. There’s no shortage of whimsy, though it’s also willing to acknowledge that fairy tales aren’t all sugar and fluff. The band had expanded to six members, and the songs still manage to put them all in interlocking places without anyone feeling too crowded. Just as important as Anderson’s fey whistling, Martin Barre’s versatile guitar provides the perfect glue to hold things together. He gets a small feature with his tasteful intro to “Pibroch,” which later became his regular showcase solo onstage for good reason. The rest of the time (as with the rest of their career, really) he’s like a first-class waiter – providing just what’s needed, right when it’s called for, and without any need to call attention to himself doing it.
Tull was pretty odd all right, but that’s a big part of what made them so great. They were always willing to step away from the obvious trails and head deeper into the woods. After all, that’s so often where the magic happens.