Aqualung (40th Anniversary Edition)
[Rating: 4 stars]
Let’s all hum it together – the marvelous opening guitar riff to Aqualung’s epic title track is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable in the history of rock music. And with good reason: In the 40 years that have passed since the release of Jethro Tull’s classic fourth album, it’s difficult to pinpoint a melody more imaginative, more capable of transporting a listener to another world – even if this particular universe conjured by Aqualung’s flute-driven folk-prog is filled with gritty, poverty-stricken imagery and religious angst. On this 40th Anniversary Special Edition (which features impeccable remastering and remixing from Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson), that magnificent feeling – and every other, for that matter – feels focused and intensified.
“It’s certainly the case that the original release is more a triumph of writing and performance than it is of sonic excellence,” Wilson comments in his honest, heartfelt liner notes. He has a point. Though Aqualung has always remained one of progressive rock’s defining moments (despite leader Ian Anderson’s insistence that this is not a prog album), the original release of the Tull’s first great statement suffered from a fairly flat mix and limited sonic range, partly due to physical limitations brought on by London’s newly established Basing Street Studios. Wilson has already proven adept at remastering classic prog (His work thus far on the King Crimson discography has been revelatory), and with Aqualung, he’s performed his finest retrospective work to date. Wilson nails every nuance, no matter how minor. The congas on the pastoral “Mother Goose” now feel like real percussion instruments, instead of cheap play toys; and the track’s brief flute fade-out now floats away in heavenly reverb. The distorted guitar crunch in “Cross-Eyed Mary” now hits with bulldozer strength, where it once sounded laughably thin.
“People forget that a lot of the album is just acoustic guitar and very stripped-down, and it’s not full-blown rock songs,” Anderson reflects in Dom Lawson’s thorough, lovingly assembled essay. It’s a typical statement for the frontman, who’s spent most of his career distancing himself from all things “progressive.” But it’s fascinating how well acoustic numbers like “Mother Goose” and the gorgeous, string-coated “Wond’ring Aloud” hold up against the heavier stuff, even if Jethro Tull still sound untouchable with the whole band revving in unison – particularly Jeffrey Hammond’s intuitive bass, which never plays quite what you’d expect, dancing around Martin Barre’s thunderous riffs in brilliant harmony.
And as far as deluxe extras are concerned, it simply doesn’t get better. In addition to the excellent packaging, the bonus disc is crammed to the brim with revelations, not the typical fluff that pads most reissues. “Lick Your Fingers Clean,” presented here with a powerful new mix, unfortunately didn’t make the cut for the final album, later totally re-worked as “Two Fingers” (from their 1974 album, War Child). It’s a shame – the track’s pummeling rock drive would have been a provided welcome contrast to Aqualung’s quiet ballads. And the numerous “early versions” are even worth a listen: The spacey choral section midway through “My God (Early Version)” sounds even more graceful than the original take.