A Passion Play by Jethro Tull Stands the Test of Time
In his notes on the 2014 remix, Steve Wilson said, “I think that A Passion Play is a historically underrated work of art that deserves to be reevaluated.” Thanks to his remix in 5.1 Surround Sound to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, Jethro Tull’s masterpiece will not need another 40 years before it is finally understood and appreciated.
First released in 1973, A Passion Play features one 45-minute “song” that is divided into acts as though it were a theatrical performance. According to Ian Anderson, “The concept grew out of wondering about the possible choices one might face after death.”
The first live performance in June, 1973 received a bad review by Chris Welch writing for Melody Maker. Shortly before the tour played Madison Square Garden in New York City on August 28, 1973 which this reviewer attended, the band announced that it would be retiring from live concerts at the end of September, 1973 when the Passion Play tour ended.
This bad ending had an inauspicious beginning as well. On the heels of the success of Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson wanted to follow up with something bigger. He originally conceived of A Passion Play as a two album release.
The band intended to record the entire album at Chateau D’Herouville in France, where musicians like Elton John and Pink Floyd had made records. However, a combination of technical difficulties, bed bugs, and homesickness caused the band to abandon the project and return to England. Once home, Anderson rewrote most of material, which ultimately became A Passion Play.
The original record album release (CAT # CHR 1040) was split into two album tracks. The first track stops in the middle of The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, which picks up on the second side. This is a reference to children’s albums that required the parent to flip the record to the other side to hear the rest of the story.
When A Passion Play was first released on CD in the United States in 1987 (CAT # VK 41040), the song retained the split. The Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD of 1998 also retained the split and, until now, has been CD preferred by most audiophiles. The story of the hare was combined into one seamless track for the 2003 re-mastered CD (CAT # 724358156904).
The deluxe boxed set of the latest pressing of A Passion Play (An Extended Performance), features two CD’s and two DVD’s. It comes with an informative 80 page book containing lyrics, a copy of the original album insert and articles ranging from Steve Wilson’s thoughts on the new mix to an article by Martin Webb on the preparation and recording of the album in the early 1970’s.
The CD’s contain Steve Wilson’s remix in stereo on disc 1 and The Chateau d’Herouville sessions in stereo on disc 2.
The DVD, Disc 1, contains Steve Wilson’s mixes in 96/24 Stereo LPCM; DTS 96/24 5.1 Surround Sound, and Dolby AC3 5.1 Surround Sound. It also contains the original 1973 album mix transferred flat to 96/24 stereo LPCM, and the tour footage of the story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles and the opening and closing ballet sequences.
The DVD, Disc 2, contains the Chateau d’Herouville sessions in 96/24 Stereo LPCM; DTS 94/24 5.1 Surround Sound, and Dolby AC3 5.1 Surround Sound.
Like most of Steve Wilson’s work, the 5.1 Surround Sound mix is remarkable. He uses all five channels in the prelude to spin the listener around the room with the flute dominating the center channel and the whistling and acoustic guitars dominating the rear.
In Critique Oblique the piano dominates the rear and one of the album’s most memorable lyric phrases gets sung through the front speakers, “are we here / for the glory / for the story / for the gory satisfaction of telling you how absolutely awful you really are.”
The story of The Hare Who List His Spectacles loses nothing of its children’s story character by remaining unbroken as it was in the live performance. The instrumentation comes predominantly from the rear speakers with Barriemore Barlow’s timpani sounding more pronounced than on prior mixes.
The story of the hare is a play within a play. It can be interpreted as a fable to help illuminate the meaning of the album’s main story line. As the creatures of the forest fuss around about the hare’s spectacles, the hare didn’t care. “His lost spectacles are his own affair.”
The main story line is about Ronnie Pilgrim’s life as impressed upon memory after his death. In the opening act, “taxies came too late.” Those who knew him were actors in his play and he in theirs. Act two is set in a theater seated with those who encountered Ronnie Pilgrim. Act three occurs in the business office of G. Oddie and Son two days later.
The album has been compared to the lyric sequences of T. S. Elliot and Ezra Pound, but one could also look toward Middle English literature and Shakespeare for comparisons. The album uses one of Shakespeare’s most famous story telling techniques of a play within a play. “Life is but a play,” said one of Shakespeare’s characters in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exists and their entrances,”
Many students of English literature have probably written papers comparing Ian Anderson’s lyrics to the plays of Shakespeare. Some of the more obvious Shakespearean allusions can be found in A Passion Play like the verse, “Such a sense of glowing in the aftermath / ripe with rich attainments all imagined / sad misdeeds in disarray / sore thumb screams aloud, echoing out of the passion play.”