searchsearch
Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Progressive Rock Giants Jethro Tull, From 'This Was' To 'The Zealot Gene'

Jethro Tull

Photos (L-R): Ricrdo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images, Martyn Goddard/Corbis, Pete Cronin/Redferns, Hulton Archive via Getty Images

feature

Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Progressive Rock Giants Jethro Tull, From 'This Was' To 'The Zealot Gene'

Despite being a staple of 1970s rock, Jethro Tull remain bizarrely underrated — they're one of the most cerebral, idiosyncratic and affecting bands of all time. With their comeback LP 'The Zealot Gene' on the way, here's a guide to their 22 albums.

GRAMMYs/Jan 16, 2022 - 03:05 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.

Ian Anderson recently released Silent Singing, a full compendium of his lyrics with his band, Jethro Tull, and from his solo career. He doesn't expect most people to seek it out, much less absorb it — and he's perfectly OK with that.

"They are perfectly entitled to —  and perhaps best advised to — just listen to the music and sing along, or tap their foot and enjoy it on a relatively basic level," the bandleader tells GRAMMY.com of the book, which spans his life's work since 1968. "They're not all necessarily interested in what lies behind it."

In other words, Anderson's not here to lecture listeners about the wonders of cutting-edge technology, the corruption of organized religion, or the joys of animal life. He makes rock songs, not TED Talks.

But what if you do want to dig deeper than the top-line information about Tull? Anderson put out Silent Singing for the more invested portion of his fan base — those who know his art beyond the famous Anchorman scene.

Flip to even the most obscure entry, like the one for "Wond'ring Again," a sequel to Aqualung's love song "Wond'ring Aloud," buried in the 1972 compilation Living in the Past, and the cerebral, furious and evocative lyrics might blow your hair back.

"The excrement bubbles / The century's slime decays," it goes. "Incestuous ancestry's charabanc ride / Spawning new millions, throws the world on its side." Unfurling its predecessor's purview until it encompasses everything, Anderson condemns an overpopulated, coarsening society plundering its only home. It’ll give you goosebumps if you're in the right mood. It's quintessential Tull. 

Wielding a freight-train intellect, a bookworm's vocabulary, and underdiscussed melodic gifts (despite his limited vocal range), Anderson has penned a few dozen tunes that belong in the Tower of Song — from the white-knuckled "Locomotive Breath" to the enchanting "One White Duck / 0¹⁰ = Nothing at All" to the exquisite "Moths." And the more you plumb beneath the surface — the riffs, the flute, the, er, codpiece — the more rewarded you'll be.

On Jan. 28, the English progressive rock titans are back with The Zealot Gene. It may be their first album in almost two decades, but their idiosyncratic vision remains undeterred. Drawn from Biblical accounts and morality lessons, songs like "Shoshana Sleeping," "The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde" and "In Brief Visitation" peer under the hood of the human condition like only Anderson can.

Despite Tull's considerable creative powers — and being a staple of hard-rock radio — they remain bizarrely underrated. Like fellow '70s hitmakers Randy Newman and Steely Dan, the press has pigeonholed them with superficial characterizations. The mordant Newman is most famous for Toy Story, so he must be a cuddly, harmless artist; the black-humored Steely Dan jammed with jazz legends and projected laconic cool, so they must be a yuppie-friendly yacht-rock act.

As for the erudite Tull, perhaps their theatrical goofiness and "Dungeons & Dragons"-style album art backfired in that department. But they've always had bigger fish to fry than being cool. Leave your preconceptions at the door, maybe hop around on one foot a little, and you're in for musical treasures galore — from poetic outpourings to horny musings to sober inquiries into a higher power.

These days, Anderson is the only remaining original member of Jethro Tull. They've had numberless lineups across the decades, and longtime, fan-favorite guitarist Martin Barre left in 2011. But if the patina of The Zealot Gene is any indication, still more captivating work may lie ahead of Anderson and his cohorts — even with their best-known music a half-century behind them.

In the latest edition of Songbook, GRAMMY.com rings in the impending release of The Zealot Gene with a deep dive into every album from the band's still-underdiscussed discography — from their blues-rock beginnings to the folk trilogy to their work in the 21st century.

(Editor's note: This list focuses on the core Jethro Tull discography and excludes compilations and Anderson's solo albums.)

 Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Named after an 18th-century agriculturist, Jethro Tull began as a fairly typical blues/rock combo with one important distinction: the flute.

This Was (1968)

Jethro Tull's debut is less the vision of Anderson than of their original lead guitarist, Mick Abrahams, who appeared on a grand total of one record — this one.

A mostly straightforward blues/rock album, This Was features an instrument that immediately distinguished Tull from their peers. (Try and guess which one.)

This was intentional on Anderson's part. In a British rock scene with a preponderance of white-boy guitar shredders, Anderson demurred and took a different tack.

"I wasn't sure when Ian turned up with the flute," Tull's drummer at the time, Clive Bunker, said in their 2019 oral history The Ballad of Jethro Tull. "I said, 'Look, Ian, it's a blues band, not a jazz band.'"

The eccentric Anderson stood out in other ways, too. "Ian was a good performer, but he was a strange man and I was confused," Abrahams recalled in the same book. "I remember seeing him shambling down the street wearing an old shabby overcoat, hair and beard all over the place, carrying a toilet bowl he'd pinched from the Savoy cinema."

As creative partners, the open-minded Anderson and blues-purist Abrahams weren't to be, but the one album they made together is a low-demand pleasure — and an enjoyable product of its time and place. 

This especially goes for the rollin'-and-tumblin' "My Sunday Feeling," and "Dharma for One.” The latter features an invented "claghorn" — an amalgam of an ethnic bamboo flute, the mouthpiece of a saxophone and the bell of a child's trumpet.

The most well-known tune here is "A Song for Jeffrey," a harmonica-driven tribute to future Tull bassist Jeffey Hammond that doubles as a roast (before Hammond officially joined the band, he and Anderson were classmates). "Gonna lose my way tomorrow/ Gonna give away my car," Anderson sings. "Can't see, see, see where I'm going." 

But Anderson had a pretty good idea of where he was headed — as foreshadowed by that rearview mirror of a title.

Stand Up (1969)

By 1969, Abrahams was out of the band. And in The Ballad of Jethro Tull, Anderson claims the pair were “never close,” noting his diametrically opposite nature: "I wasn't one of the lads. I didn't drink beer or smoke marijuana and hang out."

Barre soon replaced Abrahams; he would stay in the band for decades and perform on their most beloved works. And from the outset, he proved himself to be as eclectic and open-minded as Anderson needed him to be.

"Martin Barre wasn't a blues guitarist like Mick Abrahams," Anderson noted in the book. "I could see the possibilities."

With a simpatico co-pilot on board, Tull recorded their first truly excellent album — one that acts as a Rosetta Stone for their output throughout the following decades.

Barre's scorching lead parts on "A New Day Yesterday" foreshadow the mighty Aqualung, a jazzy rendition of Bach's "Bourée" displays their high-minded purview, and the international flavor of "Fat Man" gestures toward their '90s embrace of global sounds.

"It's progressive in that it reflects more eclectic influences, bringing things together and mixing and matching and being more creative," Anderson told Louder Sound in 2018. "For me, it's a very important album — a pivotal album."

Benefit (1970)

An album borne of exhaustion with the touring lifestyle, Benefit introduced an anxiety and ache to Tull's sound — a vibe that would take flower on Aqualung. The songs also became slippier, more mysterious, more elliptical — partly thanks to a key influence in an English progressive folkie.

"Roy Harper, who I came to know quite well, wrote songs that were so personal and frighteningly intimate," Anderson noted in The Ballad of Jethro Tull. "I found it fascinating being drawn into this sexual intimacy, but having no idea who the other person in the song was."

This vibe made it into songs like "Alive and Well and Living In," which obscures its subject: "Nobody sees her here/ Her eyes are slowly closing," "If she should want some peace, she sits there without moving/ And puts a pillow over the phone."

Elsewhere, "Sossity: You're a Woman" is their first knockout acoustic ballad in a career full of them. (Honestly, if you only seek out Tull's quieter selections, you'll still find the essence of the band.)

But most telling of all is "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me." The track was inspired by astronaut Collins, who remained in the command module of Apollo 11 as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked the lunar surface. (Advertently or not, that sums up the loneliness of touring life.)

Despite intriguing moments like these, Benefit mostly functions as the connective tissue between two eras of Tull and the ramp-up to a stone-cold classic.

Photo: Michael Putland via Getty Images

Jethro Tull's sound became increasingly dynamic and diverse, dealing in themes including organized religion. On successive releases, their ambition only grew more outsized.

Aqualung (1971)

If you can believe it, Tull's signature song, “Aqualung,” contains no flute. But it contains more than most give it credit for — an ocean of pathos.

Atop Barre's six-note thunderclap of a riff, Anderson snarlingly describes the titular, itinerant character, who wanders the frigid streets in raggy threads, leering at neighborhood girls.

If that was all "Aqualung" was, though, it wouldn't be much — a sudden dynamic shift into a hushed, acoustic ballad goes for the heart. Instead of judging the pathetic vagabond, Anderson notes his loneliness, isolation and marginalization. Most touchingly, he addresses him as "my friend." 

"[I was] not trying to imagine much about his life, but more in terms of our reaction to the homeless," Anderson told GRAMMY.com in 2021. "I felt it had a degree of poignancy because of the very mixed emotions we feel — compassion, fear, embarrassment."

After that momentous introduction, Tull leads listeners through an astonishing song cycle about the rot of organized religion ("My God"), domestic tranquility ("Wond'ring Aloud") and the dangers of overpopulation ("Locomotive Breath"). 

"'Locomotive Breath' was incredibly difficult to do," Anderson recalled in the oral history. "You have to keep the lid on the thing, like a boiler building up pressure."

Aqualung crescendos with perhaps the most powerful song ever written about the difference between God and church: "Wind Up," where the Highest addresses Anderson directly. He's a personage with thoughts and feelings, He informs Anderson — not just on Sunday morning, but 365 days per year.

In the bridge of "Wind Up," Anderson's incredulity and rage say it all. While he says his spiritual beliefs haven't changed since 1971, his rejection of dogma only seems to stoke his fires as a seeker of truth.

Thick as a Brick (1972)

Is there any more tired rock-critic construction than the "concept album"? Back in 1972, Anderson didn't seem to think so. 

"I figured … that I'd give people the mother of all concept albums," he said in The Ballad of Jethro Tull, "by taking the mickey out of some of our peer group who were now doing concept albums that were overblown and silly." (Genesis and Yes, he was looking at you.)

Thus was the impetus for Thick as a Brick, which Tull originally released as one 43-minute song across two sides. After the umpteenth shifted meter and goofy breakdown, the gag wears somewhat thin across its runtime — even with lovely moments sprinkled throughout, like the "Poet and the Painter" section.

But its flaws takes nothing away from the album's sublime first movement, titled "Really Don't Mind”  in a 2015 remix and remaster. Seemingly taking shots at intellectual elitism and a drain-circling culture, it’s one of the clearest available windows into Anderson's worldview.

"The sandcastle virtues are all swept away," he warns, "in the tidal destruction/ The moral melee." And if only for the radiant and pointed three minutes that open the record, Thick as a Brick belongs in any rock fan’s collection.

A Passion Play (1973)

By far, the most priceless take on A Passion Play comes from a Melody Maker clip about a Wembley concert, where Tull played this baffling, colossal suite front to back. Think Thick as a Brick but even more scattered, with Anderson skronking on the saxophone throughout. 

"The lyrics or story of A Passion Play did not communicate one whit," journalist Chris Welch wrote, horrified, in a piece headlined "Crime of Passion." Even more dramatically, "After the show, I felt uncomfortable and filled with inner torment."

An ambitious program about an afterlife-dweller accompanied by a bonkers stage show upon its release, A Passion Play is a head-scratcher — and its creator admits it.

"I didn't practice enough, I wasn't trained, and it hurt my lip," Anderson admitted in the oral history of his questionable sax chops, calling A Passion Play "in the bottom third of Jethro Tull albums." (Elsewhere, he called it "the step-too-far album.")

Are there decent moments? Sure, like the relieving appearance of acoustic guitar in "The Silver Cord" and "Overseer Overture," and the percolating ending of "Memory Bank." 

But at the end of the day, if you're looking for Extravagant Tull, there are more effective places to start.

War Child (1974)

Written for a film that would never be made, War Child is a scaled-back, middle-of-the-road entry before five superb albums in a row. While Anderson himself called it "the last multiple outing of the dreaded saxophone" and "kind of OK," it offers three all-timers on Side 2. 

First, cue up the gorgeous "Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of a New Day)," a xylophone-buoyed ode to the fragility of life. "Bungle in the Jungle" — which views citydwellers through a zoonotic lens — remains one of the band's biggest radio hits.

Another for your ongoing Acoustic Tull playlist is "Only Solitaire," which marries a gently winding melody with a lyrical purview that's acrid even for Anderson: "Brain-storming, habit-forming, battle-warning, weary winsome actor/ Spewing spineless, chilling lines."

Minstrel in the Gallery (1975)

Finally: a worthy follow-up to Aqualung.

Recorded with a mobile studio in Monaco, Minstrel in a Gallery elegantly splits the difference between multifarious heavy rock (the title track) and string-swept balladry (almost everything else), with an unwavering eye for dynamics and atmosphere.

Its creator called it "an angrier record" and its sessions as "a little divisive"; Barre didn't see it that way. "Ian was at his writing peak on Minstrel," he said in The Ballad of Jethro Tull. "I don't recall any friction at all. It's just that Ian took it very, very seriously."

Anderson's single-minded vision paid off in some of his loveliest songs to date. "Cold Wind to Valhalla" is a Norse daydream where "breakfast with the gods/ Night-angels serve with ice-bound majesty." "Baker St. Muse," for its part, is a gorgeous suite about quotidian London scenes.

But then, oh: the time-capsule track. "One White Duck / 0¹⁰ = Nothing at All," a heartstopping acoustic serenade suggestive of packing and leaving, remains one of Anderson's grand slams and potentially the most bewitching tune in the Tull songbook.

A puzzle as much as a song, this darkly seductive masterwork is less listened to than communed with — preferably in solitude, deep into the night.

Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976)

Initially conceived as a stage musical, Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! follows a washed-up character who learns lessons about youth and rebirth and nostalgia… or something. But the real hero of this story is the mixing and mastering engineer Steven Wilson.

Here’s why Wilson, who has remixed and remastered many Tull albums by now, is a magical being. What everyone thought was a just-OK Tull album, he revealed to be nearly perfect. As it turns out, the original mix was just murky enough to dull the album’s impact.

In Wilson's hands, Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll isn't just saved; it's potentially the most accessible gateway to this band. Shone until they gleam, "Salamander," "Bad-Eyed and Loveless" and "Pied Piper" contain sneaky hooks that might burrow into your consciousness.

While the cornerstones of the album might be the triumphant title track and closer, "The Chequered Flag (Dead or Alive)," the finest of them all is a very deep cut: “From A Dead Beat to an Old Greaser.”

Climbing a stair-step melody with an exquisite string arrangement, this affecting hipster tableau name-drops Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and René Magritte as it builds to a lithe sax solo.

Photo: Stan Frgacic/Corbis via Getty Images

Using pastoral instrumentation as a canvas, Ian Anderson explored themes of agriculture, woodland mythology and the environment under siege.

Songs From the Wood (1977)

Spurred by the book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain and a relocation to the Buckinghamshire countryside, Songs From The Wood is a jolly, earthy affair preoccupied with the pre-Christian old gods and all things verdant and growing.

Still, a faint thread of anxiety runs throughout, as if Anderson is clinging to the old country as it fades. 

"Does the green still run deep in your heart/ Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines keep us apart?" Anderson asks of the titular, woodland character in "Jack-in-the-Green." (Think Radagast, the wizard of nature from Tolkien's works — but small enough to drink from an “empty acorn cup.”)

Songs from the Wood isn't perfect — Side 2’s seemingly endless, guitar-squealing “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” is seemingly included here to run the clock. Still, the litany of folky gems throughout makes it a top-shelf Tull offering.

From the springy "Cup of Wonder" to the wintry delight "Ring Out, Solstice Bells" to the randy "Velvet Green," Songs from the Wood exudes giddy, punch-drunk joy at the gift of the green country.

Heavy Horses (1978)

Sure, songs about broken guns and hunting clothes and making love in the woods are all well and good. But on Heavy Horses, Tull took the theme further by zeroing in on animals — several songs roughly correspond to a critter found in the English countryside.

It all kicks off with "...And The Mouse Police Never Sleeps," the most deliciously bloody toast to the housecat this side of T.S. Eliot. To wit: "Savage bed foot warmer/ Of purest feline ancestry… With claws that rake a furrow red/ License to mutilate." If that doesn't sum them up, what does?

Powered by the kinetic rhythm section of bassist John Glascock and drummer Barriemore Barlow, Heavy Horses only gains steam as it hits gem after gem. "Moths" is an oblique love story imbued with magical realism; the majestic, nine-minute title track laments the obsolescence of workhorses amid the encroaching industrial age.

The crown jewel, though, is "One Brown Mouse," a rapturous ode to the banalest of household pests with a dizzying, key-toggling bridge. Drop every one of your defenses, and the song a rush of unadulterated feeling; it will pry open your heart if you let it. Smile your little smile.

Stormwatch (1979)

With country air behind Tull, something wicked this way came. Stormwatch flips the script on its (mostly) carefree predecessors, zeroing in on weather and the environment. Appropriately, the music sounds salty and eroded, like a schooner battered by a tempest.

After the opener "North Sea Oil” needles the petroleum business, the fraught vibe only unspools from there. In "Orion," Anderson addresses the titular constellation as it indifferently observes the world’s dramas; in "Something's On The Move," he tackles climate change decades before Greta Thunberg.

Sure, it’s all a touch dreary and monochromatic, but that’s part of its charm: Stormwatch is a rock-solid Tull album with a vividly rendered moral compass.

The power ballad "Home," with guitar-monies beamed overhead like the Aurora Borealis, stands out in particular. So does the weatherbeaten ballad "Dun Ringill" — which, with its disembodied, spectral whispers, sounds like a dispatch from Davy Jones' Locker.

Photo: Pete Cronin/Redferns​

At the top of the 1980s, Tull sensed the winds of change and interwove synthesizers into their sound.

A (1980)

Is it jarring to see Jethro Tull playing synth-inflected music in jumpsuits? That’s fair: A was never meant to be a Tull album, but — hence the initial in the title — an Anderson solo album. hence the title. But thire record label, Chrysalis, didn't think it would sell under his name.

"Barrie, [keyboardist] John Evan and I all received the same, cheap carbon copy of a letter explaining that the record company had decided to release Ian's latest recordings as a Jethro Tull album," synthesist and arranger Dee Palmer said in the oral history. "Our services were no longer required."

This, along with other factors, led to upheaval within the camp and the departure of multiple members. Taken together, these factors make A an odd duck in the catalog, but listening today, it's by no means an embarrassment. 

Thanks in no small part to its remaster — thanks again, Steven Wilson — songs like "Crossfire," "Fylingdale Flyer" and "Protect and Survive" show that Anderson's pop instincts remained undimmed, no matter the aesthetic or context. 

Plus, it ends with two great, underdiscussed tunes — the giddy instrumental workout "The Pine Marten's Jig" and capacious closer "And Further On."

The Broadsword and the Beast (1982)

While synths occasionally trapped in amber; they're woven in far more seamlessly on its follow-up. "We took the new technology and married it with folk-rock," Anderson explained in The Ballad of Jethro Tull, calling it "a good album and full of light and shade."

Indeed, The Broadsword and the Beast is a welcome return to form, with synth textures adding vividness and color to the songs. Despite tanking in America — probably due to the very non-single title track being the single — the record fits snugly with their '70s masterworks.

From the feisty "Beastie" to the irresistible "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," excellent tunes abound here. But the inarguable centerpiece is "Jack-A-Lynn": a downcast acoustic ballad studded by a melancholic synth motif and, eventually, detonating into stadium rock.

Under Wraps (1984)

Speaking of the 1980s, "I don't think Ian should have ever attempted to keep up with the modern trends," then-bassist Dave Pegg said in The Ballad of Jethro Tull. ("But he wasn't alone — everybody else was doing it too,” he qualifies.)

This seems to sum up the problem with the leaden, electronics-heavy Under Wraps. While the majority of tracks, like "Lap of Luxury," "European Legacy" and "Saboteur," are probably best left uninvestigated, there's one decent tune here — and one gorgeous one — to add to circulation.

Respectively, those are "Paparazzi" — which actually does something angular and intriguing with the dated palette — and "Under Wraps #2," which strips down the instrumentation for a sweet, simmering love song with charming call-and-response verses.

Crest of a Knave (1987)

Crest of a Knave may be one of Tull’s most surprising and thrilling returns to form, but its reputation precedes it in a different way. 

Sadly, it's forever tethered to the upset at the 1989 GRAMMY Awards, where it beat Metallica's …And Justice For All in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category. (Afterward, Anderson took out a full-page Billboard ad, which simply read "The flute is a heavy, metal instrument.")

At this point, however, it's time to consider Crest of a Knave apart from this well-worn anecdote. Fact is, it may be Tull's final truly great album until The Zealot Gene more than 30 years later.

The album begins thrillingly with the vertiginous "Steel Monkey," where a knuckleheaded skyscraper worker tries to get fresh with a woman. The obviously sequenced synths and programmed drums don't stifle the tune one iota — true to the industrial theme, they make it pump and slam like hydraulics. As Anderson's character gloats about his high-flying lifestyle, a skyward key change puts you right there — 300 feet above the ground.

Elsewhere, "Farm on the Freeway" addresses infrastructure's threat to American farmers, and "She Said She Was a Dancer" sardonically casts Anderson as an out-of-his-depth Western rocker trying to pick up an Eastern European. 

Despite its very 1987 production, Crest of a Knave is a triumph purely on its own terms.

 Photo: Martyn Goddard/Corbis via Getty Images

While grunge reigned in the '90s, Tull returned to their heavy-blues roots and branched into global sounds.

Rock Island (1989)

Like A Passion Play and Under Wraps before it, Rock Island could probably vanish from the catalog without altering the narrative. Which doesn't make it bad, exactly — save for the wince-worthy sexual innuendo of "Kissing Willie."

Anderson has publicly expressed fondness for at least three tunes. In the oral history, he praised "The Whaler's Dues," which he praised as "representing something that had happened historically but still had some relevance today"; and closer "Strange Avenues," which he called a "very spooky, moody piece of music." 

In Silent Singing, he cited "Another Christmas Song" as "probably my long-term favorite, oozing nostalgia, reflection, and dislocated family relationships.”

But after you throw those tunes on your Tull playlist, seek out Rock Island's follow-up, Catfish Rising, for a far more engaging example of what the band could do at the close of the '80s.

Catfish Rising (1991)

That's more like it: Catfish Rising was Tull's richest, loamiest album since Crest of a Knave.

A return to ballsy hard rock in the ballpark of Stand Up, Catfish remains strangely overlooked in the oeuvre. It's the moment they emerged from the miasma of the '80s, happily remembering what made them special in the first place.

This doesn't just mean 12-bar shuffling — although "Still Loving You Tonight" is a decent throwback in that regard — but outfitting that palette with acoustic instruments like mandolin and mandola, which has always been Tull’s specialty.

Despite not containing their deepest material, Tull listeners should know a few selections on Catfish Rising: "Sparrow on the Schoolyard Wall," "White Innocence" and "Gold Tipped Boots, Black Jacket and Tie," to name a few. 

Even while miles away from the heights of Aqualung and Minstrel in the Gallery, returning to the blues’ gravitational center kept Tull healthy and robust into the '90s.

Roots to Branches (1995)

Could Tull have successfully drifted into the remainder of the '90s as a new-age band with a Middle Eastern tint, like latter-day Popol Vuh? Roots and Branches makes a compelling case for that direction.

For once, the songs are secondary to the feeling: Roots to Branches captures the specific moment where classic rockers made "exotic" works during the CD reign. With each synth sweep and reverberated sidestick, the humid-rainforest vibe deepens.

While the album contains more ambiance than anything, a few gems reveal themselves with time — such as the Arabic-influenced ode to jewelry, "Rare and Precious Chain" and the atmospheric, after-hours piano ballad, "Stuck in the August Rain." 

Altogether, though, Roots to Branches is one for deep heads, not neophytes. (Unless "dreamily dated" is your jam — in that case, fire it up.)

J-Tull Dot Com (1999)

From the title to the typography to the too-anatomically-correct album art of the Egyptian god Amun, J-Tull Dot Com can be a tough one to defend at first. But if you can get past the packaging, there's very little actually wrong with the album — well, other than "Hot Mango Flush." 

The skulking "Hunt By Numbers" is another one of Anderson's (always welcome) songs about cats. Following that is the beguiling "Wicked Windows," which may be the only song ever written about eyeglasses — and despite the stilted drum production, it’s an imaginative beauty.

Named after the band's first registered website, "We did it in my studio and we rehearsed it and played it live in the same way as we did Thick as a Brick,” Anderson explained in The Ballad of Jethro Tull. "J-Tull Dot Com had a high-tech title but was relatively low-tech music." 

With that clarification in mind, feel free to find a used copy and party with Amun. Still, there are so many worthy alternatives — especially for first-time listeners.

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003)

What would be Jethro Tull's final album for 18 years —Anderson released solo albums Homo Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2 in the interim — wasn't really a collection of new material. Rather, it contains re-recordings of old songs and variations on Christmas classics, like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman."

If you're a committed fan who needs a little yuletide Tull, it'll do in a pinch. For everybody else, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is mostly worth hearing for the lovely, updated versions of oldies "A Christmas Song" and "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow."

Photo: Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images

After time off from the name and the departure of longstanding guitarist Martin Barre, Anderson and his latest cohorts have made a triumphant Tull album.

The Zealot Gene (2022)

Even though Anderson's never stopped recording and touring, it's bracing to hear the first music under the Jethro Tull name in ages.

Questions abounded upon its announcement: would it be a bunt, like J-Tull Dot Com, or a grand slam, like Crest of a Knave? Would the absence of Martin Barre diminish the music? 

Fortunately, this lineup, which includes longtime bassist David Goodier and keyboardist John O'Hara, is as valid and robust as any before it. And the album they made together, The Zealot Gene, hits all the marks that make the band stupendous and singular.

For starters, Anderson is as literate and layered a lyricist as he ever was. Still, he's never out to merely flaunt his vocabulary (despite employing verbiage like "sacrum," "perfidious" and "rostrom"). There's a refreshing, human element to the songs, which pull from accounts as old as time to explain how our species got in such a mess.

In "Mine is the Mountain," the wrath of the God of the Pentateuch radiates — you feel His judgment. True to its roots in the erotic Song of Solomon, "Shoshana Sleeping" has an anticipatory, heart-racing quality. And "In Brief Visitation" flips the account of Christ's death into a meditation on the concept of "fall guys."

Just as happily, The Zealot Gene isn't an aural monolith, but something of a tour through Tull's various styles over the years. The harmonica in "Jacob's Tales" recalls This Was; the synths in "Mrs. Tibbets" recall Crest of a Knave; the acoustic suite near the end recalls Minstrel in the Gallery.

Seemingly galvanized by the finished product, Anderson is already writing another Tull album: "On the first of January, I will open my mind and heart to the visiting muse," he recently told GRAMMY.com. "That's partly wishful thinking, partly me putting myself on the spot." 

Even after half a century, the minstrel has reams left to sing — and say.

Living Legends: The Kinks' Dave Davies On 21st-Century Breakdown, Mellowing Out In His Seventies & Stirring The Pot On Twitter​

Songbook: A Guide To Mastodon's Themes And Progressive Impulses, From Metal Sludge To Hard Rock And Psychedelia
Mastodon

Source Photos (L-R): Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; Scott Legato/Getty Images; Scott Legato/Getty Images; Xavi Torrent/Redferns

feature

Songbook: A Guide To Mastodon's Themes And Progressive Impulses, From Metal Sludge To Hard Rock And Psychedelia

Prolific metal group Mastodon are nominated for a Best Metal Performance GRAMMY Award. Ahead of the show, and with their debut studio album 'Remission' turning 20 this May, here's a guide to each eclectic era in the group's prodigious career.

GRAMMYs/Mar 28, 2022 - 05:39 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.

Even though it sounds like the product of some urban legend, buried deep in the digital detritus of an obscure Reddit thread, the members of Mastodon really did meet at a High on Fire show in 2000.

Drummer Brann Dailor and rhythm guitarist Bill Kelliher were already well acquainted and a fixture of the New York underground scene, having played together in mathcore outfit Lethargy and noisegrind act Today Is The Day. After relocating to Atlanta and stopping by a High on Fire show in a friend's basement, they quickly forged an easy friendship with bassist Troy Sanders and lead guitarist Brett Hinds over their shared love of sludge metal, classic new wave British heavy metal (NWOBHM), and dive-bar hard rock staples.

Contrary to most acts in the genres of metal and rock, Mastodon has never been a revolving door of membership. With the exception of original lead vocalist Eric Saner (who left the group in its infancy prior to any formal releases), the core quartet has remained unchanged for over two decades. It's easy to see how this continuity has been fundamental to their success, impressive body of work and growth as musicians.

With each member of the group bringing their unique talents to bear across their diverse discography — Dailor's impeccable polyrhythms and smooth melodic croon; Hinds' banjo-inspired hybrid picking and wailing growl; Sanders' rumbling low-end tone and gruff yell; Kelliher's steady rhythms and technical versatility — Mastodon's collective unity has created something greater than the sum of its gifted parts.

In the latest edition of Songbook, GRAMMY.com explores the dense themes and progressive impulses that have motivated Mastodon for over two decades — from their molten sludge metal origins to their embrace of heady psychedelia and hard rock songwriting.

Listen to GRAMMY.com’s Songbook: An Essential Guide To Mastodon playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

(Editor's note: This list focuses on the core Mastodon discography and excludes EPs and live albums.)

Summoning Hail And Flame

To fully appreciate Mastodon's turn-of-the-millennium beginnings, it's necessary to jump forward in time ever so slightly. Released in early 2006 as one of their final projects with long-time label Relapse Records (and before their big-league step up to Reprise Records and Warner Music), Call of the Mastodon provides a scattershot sampling of the band's early years.

Featuring tracks from the Slickleg and Lifesblood EPs — both originally released in 2001 and remastered by original producer Matt Washburn — this compilation LP showcases a proto-Mastodon still in formation. Repackaged out of sequence, the compositions sound less like the towering and imposing beast of their Pleistocene namesake and more like a wild elephant calf finding its feet. However, this sonic adolescence still manages to provide subtle hints toward the band's future potential.

From the thrash-like precision and murky downstrokes of "We Built This Come Death" to the frantic rhythmic pummeling of "Welcoming War," it's clear that Hinds and Kelliher always had the chops as axemen to rival sludge icons like Eyehategod's Jimmy Bower and High On Fire's Matt Pike. Both "Shadows That Move" and "Hail to Fire" bristle with livewire energy that feels almost hardcore-inspired, while "Battle at Sea" and the droning "Deep Sea Creature" point towards the quartet's inclination for distortion, juxtaposition, and thematic lyrical gestures — albeit across a more abrasive vocal range that future albums would wisely temper.

While the compilation may lack the overall narrative cohesion and vision of their later records, Call of the Mastodon should ultimately be viewed as the band's first "true" album — a sentiment Kelliher expressed to Loudwire in 2017.

If Call of the Mastodon represented the Atlanta quartet finding their feet, then their official debut album is the moment that truly stamped their arrival on the American heavy metal scene.

The sonic leap from those early EPs to Remission (2002) is noticeably stark, present in almost every facet of the record: the heavily saturated, down-tuned crunch of quaking album opener "Crusher Destroyer"; the coarse bellows and multi-pronged vocal attack from Hinds and Sanders; the lengthy experimental gallop of "Trainwreck" and "Trilobite"; Dailor's effortlessly intricate drum fills and accents; and engineer Matt Bayles' (Botch, ISIS, These Arms Are Snakes) thick, weighty production.

Although Remission isn't strictly a concept album, Mastodon weaves together thematic elements to complement their towering riffage and serpentine grooves. With fire as a loose motif, tracks like "Burning Man" and lead single "March of the Fire Ants" draw on hellfire imagery to add emotional color to expressions of hopelessness and torment. "Where Strides the Behemoth" and "Ol'e Nessie" channel mythical creatures as metaphors for revelatory visions and desperate soul-searching, while "Trampled Under Hoof" throws back to the "life's blood" of the group's origins.

Yet, perhaps the most grounding inspiration comes from Dailor, who described the record as an outlet for grief following his sister's suicide when he was a teen: "I was never able to put that stuff anywhere. All that pain I was carrying inside. The pain of losing her had always been there… When I started playing in Mastodon and moved to Atlanta, there was a big personal healing. Mastodon had a lot to do with that. That's one of the main reasons that the album is titled Remission. Remission means forgiveness and healing."

Paul Romano's striking album cover — a distressed "Workhorse" caught mid-combustion and near-death, as vibrant purple flames erupt from its torso — brings it all together: fading strength and all-consuming power; bitter cycles of life and death; anger and love; existential heaviness and divine light. Following Remission, Romano illustrated all of Mastodon's artwork throughout their first decade.

Through The Salt, Earth And Sky

Mastodon needed to take things to the next level on their sophomore LP and push the scope of their Southern sludge metal into the realm of the gargantuan and monolithic. Curiously, inspiration for this conceptual leap came in the form of two unlikely sources: the recurrence of elemental leitmotif, and American novelist Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851).

This deep engagement with Melville's "Great American Novel" allowed the group to continue the use of elemental cues as their dominant theme. Where Remission used fire to stand in for themes of redemption and rebirth, Leviathan (2004) turned to the sea as the spiritual catalyst for exploring mortality and the band's desire for greatness.

As Dailor explained in several interviews, there were a number of parallels between the fixated obsessions of Melville's now-iconic Captain Ahab and the band's longing to establish a legacy in the hallowed halls of metal. Discussions among the quartet acknowledged that this pursuit was, in part, a manifestation of their own "white whale," their collective and elusive "sea salt mastodon."

Musically, the record throws the listener overboard into a raging tempest. Opener "Blood and Thunder" sports one of the most iconic and recognizable riffs in the genre, while vigorous cuts like "Aqua Dementia" and "Naked Burn" successfully split the difference between density and playfulness — equal parts Melvins and Slayer, Neurosis and Thin Lizzy. Yet even such lofty ambitions can't sink the record's staggering 13-minute opus "Hearts Alive," a track that effortlessly fuses the lumbering mass of Sabbathian doom with lugubrious melodic undercurrents.

Despite future albums achieving ever higher levels of commercial success, Leviathan spawned four singles ("Iron Tusk," "Blood and Thunder," "I Am Ahab," and "Seabeast"), received multiple Album of the Year accolades, was inducted into the Decibel Hall of Fame in 2016, and is now considered one of the defining metal albums of the 21st century.

With their status as metal titans now solidified, Mastodon used this creative freedom to refine and expand their sonic template. As the band told Dave Grohl in a revealing interview for Revolver, much of the impetus behind Blood Mountain (2006) came from seeking out "melody as a fifth instrument."

For their third LP, the quartet leaned into intricate vocal layering, ambient textures and dizzying instrumental wandering of psychedelia harder than ever before. This progressive flirtation was immediately evident with the double lead single "Crystal Skull/Capillarian Crest." The former moves briskly through gnarled tempo changes and locked-in grooves from Sanders and Dailor, allowing each harmonized riff from Hinds and Kelliher to shine brighter; the latter frequently descends into jazzy prog passages, resting on a lofty chorus and mystic nods to "cosmogenic cycles" and "universal dreams."

Drawing heavily from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Blood Mountain crafts a fantasy epic worthy of a hefty acid trip, with earth as the primary elemental cue. Supercharged opener "The Wolf Is Loose" is a carnal, riff-centric beast that guides the record's overarching narrative. Utilizing a deceptively catchy hook, "The Wolf" sets up a werewolf protagonist, the quest for a crystal skull to replace a reptilian brain, and the ascension of the album's titular peak.

Bolstered by guest features from Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Isaiah Owens and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (the Mars Volta), Blood Mountain racked up accolades from outlets like Kerrang and Metal Hammer, while also scoring the group their first GRAMMY nomination for the album's third single "Colony of Birchmen" — itself a direct homage to Dailor's love for English rockers Genesis, further shoring up Mastodon's progressive credentials.

Piecing together Mastodon's exploration of elemental leitmotif across their 2000s output, a distinct narrative telos begins to emerge. Beginning with the fiery molten core of Remission, we move outwards from the planet's center to the sprawling watery depths of Leviathan, before stepping foot on earthly terra firma in Blood Mountain. Taking this conceptual thrust to its logical end, Mastodon's fourth LP concludes their early album tetralogy with air or "aether" as its elemental lodestar.

Crack The Skye (2009) is one of the band's most meditative and diffuse efforts, exploring themes of disembodied emancipation. "[Crack The Skye] is a departure from everything we've previously recorded in the sense that we kinda strapped on our aeroshells and departed from Earth for a while," Sanders told Stereogum. "Basically we're exploring the ethereal world. We're dissecting the dark matter that dominates the universe, in a nutshell."

Switching out Matt Bayles for producer Brendan O'Brien (AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots), alongside the works of King Crimson and Frank Zappa as instrumental touchstones, Mastodon's continued search for that long-desired "fifth element" had finally reached its lofty zenith. With the welcome addition of Dailor's melodic croon to the group's already potent lead vocal register, tracks like "Oblivion" and "Divinations" approach anthemic transcendence, pushing their weighty sonic profile into the stratosphere off the back of arresting hooks and sublime vocal harmonies.

Elsewhere on the record, ethereal elements combine to push their storytelling into narrative overdrive, drawing on references to paraplegia, Tzarist historical actors ("The Czar"), occult rituals, astral projection ("Quintessence"), Mephistophelean bargains ("The Last Baron") and sci-fi wormholes. And yet, for all its thematic density, Crack The Skye still retains a sense of playful wonder and emotional majesty, whether it be through the cathartic release of tension on "Ghost of Karelia" or a moving tribute to Dailor's sister Skye on the album's expansive title track.

The Dance Of Death

After a string of critically-acclaimed records and building rich narrative-driven worlds to accentuate them, Mastodon began to feel the need for a creative reset. Following their world tour throughout 2009-2010, which included a European run with Metallica, the band began work on an entirely new creative endeavor: scoring the film adaptation of the DC comic Jonah Hex (2010).

While the band were initially given full creative control on the project, the score and the film itself were met with several production issues and changes in composer, forcing the band to scrap the entire thing and start again. (Hinds even lamented to Vulture that the shelved material was "some of the best s<em></em><em> I've ever written in my life.") With their creative juices now thoroughly drained and the score's final form — the Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly* EP (2010) — is a pale imitation of what might have been. As a result, it's hardly surprising that Mastodon chose to strip things back at the conceptual level for their upcoming fifth studio album.

The Hunter (2011) was a lean and multi-faceted record that pulled liberally from their back catalog while also remixing stylistic influences with a sharp ear for accessibility. GRAMMY-nominated single "Curl of the Burl" plays out like a funked-up QOTSA, with "Octopus Has No Friends" and "Dry Bone Valley" acting as spiritual cousins to the mind-melting psych of their previous LP. Tracks like "Blasteroid" and "Stargasm" embody what Dailor describes as "super-heavy Led Zeppelin," walking a fine line between meaty drop-C chugging and shimmering lead work. The cackling laughter and Moog synth-scapes that open the epic "Creature Lives" feel like sincere Pink Floyd worship.

The Hunter also marked the band's first time working with Californian producer Mike Elizondo (Maroon 5, Avenged Sevenfold, 50 Cent), along with the use of a sculpture titled Sad Demon Oath by woodcarver AJ Fosik for the album's artwork. And much like Remission almost a decade earlier, The Hunter has a fluid thematic focus, shifting from a tribute to Hind's brother on the title track (who died from a heart attack during a hunting trip) to digressions about birds, sex in space, and childhood video games.

Continuing where The Hunter left off, Mastodon's sixth LP once again left the concept album behind in favor of more liberatory forms of expression. With band members namechecking influences as diverse as Alice in Chains, Deftones, Rush and Foo Fighters — all of whom had worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz previously — the band's transition from sludge metal lifers to outright prog- and hard rock advocates feels like a tacit no-brainer.

Speaking with Rolling Stone, Dailor describes the sonic range explored on Once More ‘Round the Sun (2014) with noticeable excitement:

It's gonna be massive and insane, lots of epic greatness. There will be lots of huge riffs and new directions. It's real weird, real math-y, real straightforward. It's up, down and all around. It's a culmination of everything for the band. The snowball keeps rolling and collecting snow.

And yet, much like Oakland-based artist Skinner's evocative album cover — a vivid "psychedelic nightmare painting" of a tessellated cosmic dragon-demon figure — Once More ‘Round the Sun cycles through eerily familiar moods and themes. Opener "Tread Lightly" hits like the Mastodon of old; "High Road" contrasts crunchy, riff-heavy sections with a strong hook and Hind's flashy fret-work; "Feast Your Eyes" and "Chimes at Midnight" offer up the high-octane verses, open choruses and spacey bridges that have become the quartet's signature.

Things also get weird in spots: Dailor's soaring chorus on "The Motherload" is one of the group's most direct attempts at a radio-rock hit  — even if the single's twerk-laden video makes for a fun little head-scratcher. Later, Atlanta punks The Coathangers pop up on "Aunt Lisa" for a strange gang vocal section ("Hey-ho/ Let's f<em></em><em></em><em></em> rock and roll"). But when Mastodon do strive for alt-metal cohesion, as on standouts "Asleep In The Deep" and "Ember City," the results are stunning and richly textured.

At the level of theme, Once More ‘Round the Sun does feel like a bit of an oddity in the band's back catalog. While Kelliher has insisted that the album's guiding motif is death itself — aligning it spiritually with Remission and The Hunter — its compositions feel far too jubilant for this theme to resonate in any meaningful way. Still, this narrative ambiguity is far from a hindrance, as it's still one of Mastodon's best performing records and responsible for the quartet's third GRAMMY nomination.

Exploring The Desert And Darkness

At this point in Mastodon's journey, it might seem difficult to track their intended trajectory. Should the group further dilute their sound and abandon their abrasive edges for further crossover appeal? Or perhaps a pivot back to their sludgy roots is called for? The answer, as it turns out, is to essentially do both: Double down on the dance with death that defined their 2010s output, while also synthesizing all eras of the band into a formidable, cohesive whole.

For example, take the punchy one-two that opens Emperor of Sand (2017). "Sultan's Curse" — which earned the group their first GRAMMY win for Best Metal Performance  — pairs Hinds' intricate leads with Kelliher's charged rhythms before bursting open into swelling melodies from Dailor and Sanders. Then, immediately chasing that shot of adrenaline with a mid-tempo alt-rocker, "Show Yourself" takes that Mastodon formula and promptly twists it into grungy, truck-stop radio territory.

Inspired by the brutal reality of cancer — including the passing of Kelliher's mother, and diagnoses for Sanders' wife and Dailor's mother — Mastodon returned to the concept album for their seventh LP, shading increasingly elaborate story elements with real-life tragedies. Unifying themes of survival and temporality, Emperor of Sand focuses on a protagonist facing a death sentence from a cruel desert sovereign, ultimately forced to wander alone in a barren wasteland and confront the grim shadow of their own mortality. As Sanders states:

To that end, the album ties into our entire discography. It's 17 years in the making, but it's also a direct reaction to the last two years. We tend to draw inspiration from very real things in our lives.

Like Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack The Skye before it (including the return of producer Brendan O'Brien), this progressive impulse goes on to yield exhilarating results, with zig-zagging riff sections ("Precious Stones," "Word to the Wise"), muscular bursts of aggression and emotional catharsis ("Roots Remain," "Andromeda"), droning atmospherics, colorful synthesizers, and memorable hooks ("Steambreather," "Clandestiny," "Jaguar God").

Ensuring that dedicated fans would not be left out in the cold during the creative stalemate of a global pandemic, 2020 saw the release of yet another Mastodon compilation LP. Cheekily titled Medium Rarities, the release celebrates the band's 20 year milestone by bringing together 70 minutes of previously unreleased live versions, bonus tracks, instrumentals, standalone originals and a slew of eyebrow raising covers — further adding to the quartet's versatility and prolific output.

The unreleased "Fallen Torches" (featuring frequent collaborator Scott Kelly) is a worthy throwback to Leviathan's might, with a devastating build-up and planet-cracking riff as a finisher. Mastodon's cover of Metallica's legendary instrumental "Orion" (from Master of Puppets) is faithfully rendered with just enough sludge metal kick to make it their own.

Originals like "Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife" from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (2007) soundtrack and "White Walker" from Game of Thrones are equally amusing: the former acts as a snotty blast of tongue-in-cheek punk-metal; the latter a plaintive and elegiac ballad fit for feuding kingdoms.

While Medium Rarities may lack a "cohesive whole," it nonetheless underscores the band's chameleonic ability to shift between various moods and styles. Notes Steve Beebee in Kerrang, "Rather than adhering to anything so obvious as chronology it becomes a seemingly random, yet highly effective, stampede — but that's Mastodon to the core."

After everything Mastodon have delivered across their prodigious career, it's fitting that their first effort for a new decade is also their most ambitious. Composed of 17 tracks and clocking in at nearly 90 minutes in length, the spellbinding double LP Hushed and Grim (2021) requires a certain level of commitment even for the most dedicated fan.

With Paul Romano returning to provide the record's moody cover — a spindly old tree, knotted with whorls and adorned with spirit animals, awash in muted hues — the band enlisted the help of Canadian producer David Bottrill (Tool, Muse, Placebo) to render each lamenting composition in evocative detail, making Hushed & Grim by far the darkest and most collaborative entry in the quartet's catalog.

As Dailor explains, themes of death and cancer once again dominated their conceptual framework:

[The tree] is an afterlife mythology that when you pass away, your spirit goes into the heart of a tree and then experiences all the pillars of your life in successions of the seasons that the tree experiences. That is the way you're able to say goodbye to the natural world and move on to the next dimension. You can see a green man in the center of the tree — the heart of the tree — and that is our good friend and manager Nick John, who passed away, unfortunately, a couple of years ago. [Nick] has a lot to do with the inspiration of the album.

Opener "Pain With An Anchor" echoes this sentiment with a sorrowful ode to the sting of defeat. Grief then turns to righteous anger on "The Crux," "Savage Lands" and "More Than I Could Chew," while the closing trio of disc one — "Skeleton of Splendor," "Teardrinker" and "Pushing The Tides" (also the band's sixth and latest GRAMMY nomination for Best Metal Performance) — move swiftly from moments of melodic mourning to raging bursts of energy.

Elsewhere on disc two, this recognition of emotional heft results in some of the most striking Mastodon tracks ever recorded. Two Sanders-led cuts, "Dagger" and "Had It All," flirt with the melodramatic, and border on goth-rock balladry with the addition of sarangi and French horns. Epic closer "Gigantium" reaches out for divine inspiration, wrapping Hind's solo work with elegiac strings and violin.

One element common to all Mastodon records is symbology. Forming part of the band's iconic typography and logo, each album features a distinct glyph that denotes the record's overarching theme: sun, fire, water, earth, aether, wood, cycles and time.

As Albert Chessa of The Mastodon Podcast argues, the symbology of Hushed & Grim and its inclusion of the "Zenithal Crescent" glyph helps to conceptualize all of Mastodon's work as a functional meta-narrative:

In symbolic language, the arc-form signifies both beginning (sunrise) and end (sunset), as well as evoking a pair of embracing arms — one that gives, another that takes away… Four figures on each side (past and future), viewed from bird's eye view, gather around a portal (or tomb)  — an Octogram, evoking eternal rest and remembrance (∞)… Zenithal means ‘highest point'  — thus, this glyph honors someone who always brought out the very best of those he loved.

Of course, at the material level, Mastodon are still just four friends, sharing in their creativity and making heavy music together. Yet, what Hushed & Grim proves is that the Atlanta quartet will likely never be content with creative complacency, continuing to have surprises in store for those willing to venture beyond the music.

As Code Orange Wraps Up Tour With Korn, They Look Ahead To Headlining Stages & Making New Music: "We Really Want To Take A Big Swing"

Ian Anderson On The Historical Threads Of Fanaticism, Playing Ageless Instruments & Jethro Tull's New Album 'The Zealot Gene'
Ian Anderson

Photo: Will Ireland

interview

Ian Anderson On The Historical Threads Of Fanaticism, Playing Ageless Instruments & Jethro Tull's New Album 'The Zealot Gene'

Ian Anderson never stopped recording and touring, but 'The Zealot Gene' is the first album by his long-running band, Jethro Tull, in 18 years. Here, Anderson opens up about why it took so long — and why he plumbed humanity's capacity for militancy.

GRAMMYs/Jan 25, 2022 - 06:50 am

Jethro Tull has spent more than 50 years pigeonholed as the classic rock band with the flute  — and largely undervalued for their wit, intelligence and heart. But that doesn't stop bandleader Ian Anderson from marveling at the very physicality of his instrument.

"Other than fine-tuning some of the mechanics and the intonation and scale of it, it's the instrument that is 175 years old now," Anderson tells GRAMMY.com, noting that Theobald Boehm perfected the Western concert flute a century before his birth. "I'm a fan of those 'forever' kind of aspects of music-making. They just go on and on and on."

This eternality doesn't just imbue Anderson's instruments of choice — he also plays the acoustic guitar, mandolin and Irish whistle — but informs what he writes and sings about. Sure, he's fascinated by modern technology — he named an album J-Tull Dot Com back in 1999, and any discussion with him is bound to be sprinkled with references to aircraft and artillery.

Read More: Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Progressive Rock Giants Jethro Tull, From This Was To The Zealot Gene

But these days, Anderson wants to know where our political discourse's wild-eyed fervor and immutable rhetoric flows from. And while nobody can pinpoint an ultimate origin for this psychological strain, the GRAMMY-winning progressive-rock giants' latest offering, The Zealot Gene — which arrives Jan. 28 — argues that it's millennia-old at this point. In fact, it's Biblical.

That's the name of the first Jethro Tull album in 18 years — despite several Anderson solo albums since then. (The last one was 2003's The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, partly an album of re-recordings.) Open up Anderson's 2021 lyrics compendium, Silent Singing, and you'll find scriptural citations for each song — "Mrs. Tibbets" comes from Genesis, "Shoshanna Sleeping" from the Song of Solomon, "The Betrayal of Joshua Kynde" from the Gospel of Matthew, and so forth.

Then, you'll notice the Andersonian dimensions of the lyrics — peppered with an English professor's vocabulary. And when you actually listen, you'll hear quintessential Tull — commensurately delicate and thunderous, with opportunities galore to hop on one leg a little.

Despite Anderson being the only remaining original member of the band — fan-favorite guitarist Martin Barre has been out for more than a decade — The Zealot Gene is a treasure box for Tull neophytes and diehards alike. Once an acoustic wafts in on side 2 — nodding toward those on classics like 1971's Aqualung — it's hard to hear it as anything but a return to form.

GRAMMY.com sat down with Anderson over Zoom to discuss the narrative power of Christianity, the contents of his bookshelf, and how a list of positive and negative words led him to crack open the Bible — and write the first Tull album in ages.

The last Jethro Tull album came out almost 20 years ago — obviously, you've recorded solo albums and toured all over the place since then. But why did you step away from the name for so long?

In 2011, I announced to the band that I was going to embark on a project unspecified for some point in the future. I told Martin Barre and Duane Perry, our drummer, that for the next period of time — whatever that turned out to be — I would be doing some other stuff.

I set out to do the Thick as a Brick 2 album, which is what it turned out to be once I started applying myself to a project, and since it didn't involve two members of the band who had been around for many members, I decided I should release it as a solo album rather than a Jethro Tull album. 

And then, subsequently, in 2014, I released Homo Erraticus, which I also released as a solo album. Although, with hindsight, it probably would have been better to have said that was a Jethro Tull album because the guys on the album had been playing with me for many years at that point.

Later on still, when I started working on The Zealot Gene, I decided at that point that I would release it as a Jethro Tull album because the guys in the band had been playing with me as members of Jethro Tull for an average of 15 years.

It seemed like the decent thing to do — to release it as Jethro Tull so they could actually be on a Jethro Tull album, as opposed to just Jethro Tull live concert dates. So, it was written and conceived as a band album, and indeed, it started off to be just that in 2017, when we spent five days in rehearsal and four days recording to do the first seven tracks.

But because of the pressures of touring and other commitments, it didn't get finished. I think I finished four tracks in that year — that I completed vocals and flute and mixed and so on.

Then, it kept getting delayed and delayed because of the very short periods between tours, until the pandemic struck — at which point, I hoped we would get in the studio to finish it off and do the last five songs. But it was not to be, since we were in lockdown and it was unwise for us to be together in a room.

So, I ended up, at the beginning of [2021], deciding I really had to finish the album, and I would just finish the last five tracks at home. And the other guys, some of them sent in their contributions as audio files to be incorporated into the mix.

I presented it to the record company — finished, mixed and mastered — in June. Due to the delays of pressing vinyl, it was never going to be released in [that] calendar year. So, the 28th of January is the official release date due to the seven, eight months of delay and waiting to have the slot at the pressing plant to be able to manufacture.

I'm sure there are Tull fan groups grumbling about the lack of one member or another, but I think this lineup is as valid and powerful as any — especially given that some members have played with you for many years.

Well, the guitarist who is on almost all of The Zealot Gene is Florian Opahle, who left the band at the end of 2019 when he completed his recording studio near Munich, in Germany — a photographic studio to work with his wife, who's a professional photographer.

And so, he decided his touring days were over — although he did come back to do some shows in August and early September of this year, because Joe Parrish, his replacement, was not fully vaccinated at that point — a much younger guy.

So, Florian stepped in to do a few shows to help us out. It was great to have him back, but he is indeed the guitarist on The Zealot Gene — at least on seven of the tracks. Joe Parrish- James contributed a little bit of guitar on one of the remaining five tracks, just so his presence would be there on the album.

But yeah, the guys have been around for a long time. I mean, David Goodier started with me in 2004, John O'Hara in 2005. It goes back a long way working with these same members of the band. So, it's time for recognition that they are well and truly members of Jethro Tull.

After looking up all the scriptures cited in Silent Singing, I think the word "gene" says it all. You're drawing a thread from extremism in ancient history — like that account in Ezekiel of slaughtering the idolators — to what we're seeing today.

Well, it's a fanciful supposition that the human condition embraces something genetic that makes us want — as we say in English vernacular — to get our knickers in a twist.

What I'm really meaning by "zealot" is not a Biblical reference or a reference to Christian zealots, per se. I'm just talking about zealots as being fanatics — people who are fanatical about a certain topic. They could be fanatical about building model railways or attending football matches or following Formula One Grand Prix racing — or fanatical about Michelin-starred restaurants.

But, really, what I'm getting at is "fanatical" in the sense of being very firm and loudly of an opinion — which most people feel, increasingly these days, necessary to express. And freedom of speech, of course, is absolutely vital to us.

But when it starts to hurt other people — when it starts to be divisive socially in the way that populist politicians and national leaders use social media to create division in their society, to set people against each other in order to have a majority, they hope, that will allow them to maintain power — then it gets very ugly.

So, it would be easy to say that "The Zealot Gene," the title track, is modeled on Donald Trump, but that is too easy. It could be one of half a dozen people who immediately spring to mind, who are national leaders of a pretty aggressive and unpleasant sort, who epitomize that idea of being fanatical about their cause and clinging to power at all costs. That idea of fanaticism or powerful emotions runs through the album.

Indeed, it started out as a list of words. I decided I would write each song about a different kind of strong human emotion. And I made a list: some of the good stuff like companionship, loyalty, faithfulness, love — platonic love, brotherly love, spiritual love, erotic love — compassion. And then, I wrote down some bad words: things like "anger," "greed," "jealousy," "retribution."

And I looked at my list of words that I was going to, each one, pick as a subject for a song, and thought, "Oh, these are all words I recall from reading the Bible." So, I looked up all the Biblical references that readily came up in a search that would apply to those descriptions — those words.

I copied and pasted some of those verses from the Bible and put them on a file on my computer that I could use as a ready reference to draw a little comparison from. On really all but one song, I'm taking those ideas and trying to give them relevance to the world we live in today.

I think the only exception, really, is "Mine is the Mountain," which is really set in the Biblical, historical story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone to take down and satisfy his followers — that he was in possession of something powerful and strong that would allow him to maintain his authority and lead his followers to a promised land.

That's something I appreciate as a good narrative and gives Christianity its strength and power. It's a good story. Unlike other religions, it has a continuous narrative. It has a beginning, a fairly short middle and a very powerful ending. But the ending of it brings the promise of something more to come — i.e. series 3 on Netflix.

That's why Christianity has this enormous power as a religion worldwide. It's a narrative. It's a story. And we all love a good story — even if some of it is not entirely credible, historically speaking, or unprovable factually. But I'm a big supporter of Christianity; I just don't choose to call myself a Christian.

My favorite song on the album is "In Brief Visitation," which frames Christ as a "fall guy." It feels charged with love and wonder, but also biting humor — it's quintessential Tull in its outlook. What was going on with that song?

Well, yes, obviously, going back to my notes and the Biblical texts, we are talking about Jesus of Nazareth being, if you like, the "fall guy" for a cause. As a rather radical Jewish prophet as he was, in historical terms, almost certainly. But it's applicable to anybody who perhaps has a brief period of time to try to achieve something, but ends up suffering for the cause and being cast aside.

I think it has lots of applications in the modern world. Sometimes, bad things — because, right now, there is a trial concluding in America where a certain woman is likely to spend the rest of her life in prison if a jury finds that she should so do.

She could be referred to as a "fall guy" — carrying the can for a very dreadful person who is not allowed to face the music because he committed suicide. That's another kind of fall guy — someone who takes the rap because it's easier to pick on somebody who you can actually identify and punish.

That's a bad example in the sense of bad deeds, but there are probably other cases where people who probably do good things still end up being pilloried in some way because they're easy targets.

I think the important thing is, for me, as a writer, that I have a reason for writing something. I can bring it under an overall topic. It can sit under the umbrella of a concept, and the concept is quite simple: it's just to write a bunch of individual songs about extreme emotion.

But I like to tie it together, and that's the fact of using Biblical texts — not as an inspiration, but a little constant reminder of some examples that I can draw upon and flesh out in often contemporary terms.

I appreciate that you've never succumbed to any urge or pressure to streamline or dumb down your ideas for a wider audience. It seems like you've engendered an intelligent following for it.

I don't think it's so important that I do that to the majority of listeners. I think they are perfectly entitled to — and perhaps best advised to — just listen to the music and sing along or tap their foot and enjoy it on a relatively basic level. I don't expect people to go into the detail of what's there.

But I think for those who do want to go into what lies behind something…the general feeling was: yes, we should give the dedicated fans the detail, the information behind the album, how it came to be written, and even include the very first, rough demos that I made and sent out to the members of the band back in early March of 2017.

But I don't think that's necessarily important for the majority of people who will listen to the album — having hopefully paid for it, or downloaded it, or streamed it or whatever. They're not all necessarily interested in what lies behind it, and that's fine by me.

"Jacob's Tales" sounds like it could have been on This Was. "Mine is the Mountain" has a "My God" feeling. The synths throughout the album make me think of Crest of a Knave. Was it a conscious decision to touch on the sounds of Tull's various eras?

Hardly at all. They're just the instruments we play. Essentially, the instruments I play are the instruments I've been playing since I first began professionally.

I play the acoustic guitar; I use it for writing the majority of songs I've written over the years. And I play the flute — another acoustic instrument — and other acoustic instruments which occasionally appear on records. Mandolin, harmonica and the Irish whistle — these things appear on this album in small measure, but they're there.

So, I'm an analog, acoustic kind of guy as a performer. And when you look at the guitars that get played — our bass player plays a Fender Jazz Bass. It's from the 1960s. Our guitar player — well, Florian, on the album — he's playing a Gibson Les Paul, which is another vintage, late-'50s, early-'60s.

And John O'Hara plays the piano and Hammond organ, which, again, are instruments that are part of the history of pop and rock music as well as jazz. And, in the case of piano, of course, it forms a major part of classical music.

So, the instruments we use are fundamentally embedded in the world of contemporary and older forms of music — there's nothing particularly clever about that, technologically. I think where the technology comes in is into the actual recording process, where everything is digitally recorded, mixed and mastered. That's the bit where the technology is contemporary.

I like to embrace the traditions of music-making and incorporate those into modern technological ways of bringing it to the ears of the public. That's my approach to making music, really — it's a mixture of old and new.

And when I get on an aeroplane, very often, I'm sitting on a Boeing 737 — another product of the '60s, still flying today. [There are] several editions further on, but nonetheless, it still looks like the Boeing 737; it smells like the Boeing 737. You know, if you were to pick up the average handgun belonging to a policeman — assuming he would let you do it — you would see inside the magazine some 9mm Parabellum ammunition.

It's been around since the very beginning of the 20th century as the ammunition caliber that is probably, more than any other — in terms of sidearms — been the gold standard. If you can call it that, given that it is something primarily used for killing people. Except, if I have it in my hands, I'm just making holes in a paper target, so that's OK. However, a lot of things seem to go on forever. They seem relatively unchanged in many ways. I rather like that.

The flute I play is an instrument that was designed by Theobald Boehm exactly 100 years before I was born. And essentially, it's still the flute that you would buy if you were a student learning to play the flute, or you were a soloist in the world of classical music… I'm a fan of those "forever" kind of aspects of music-making. They just go on and on and on.

Obviously, we've all flirted with the analog synthesizers of the '70s and the more exotic sampling and sequencing keyboards of the '80s and the '90s. But they are there almost as a substitute for the real thing…for a classical grand piano, or a substitute for a church organ or Hammond organ.  It's a matter of convenience, but essentially, not a busting amount has really changed.

So, we're still flying in a Boeing 737 most of the time, in musical terms.

You mentioned the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, and I remember you telling me you'd read George W. Bush's memoir. What else are you reading about these days?

Well, I read a mixture of Nordic noir crime thrillers — just for a bit of light entertainment — and then weightier books on subjects. Comparative religion, spirituality, things to do with fairly deep, philosophical thoughts.

Sometimes, they're more contemporary, but nonetheless, somewhat philosophical by contemporary popular writers who will go into topics of everything from ecology, to climate change, through to the societal changes happening these days and where we might be headed in the future.

Again, it's the contrast that appeals to me, I suppose. If I only read one kind of thing all the time, it would be a little dull.

It seems like you're always working on Tull-related books or putting out boxed sets for various anniversaries. How would you break down an average day in your life, from a professional standpoint?

I usually get up at six in the morning — sometimes a little earlier. I come down, do a couple of hours' work in the office. And then, I usually have my morning round of promo interviews to do, if I'm working with a new project, like the album — [which] is, for me, quite demanding from a promo point of view.

So, I've got a few hours of press and promo to do in the morning, as per the European side of things, and then I've got press and promo to do in North America and other territories on very different time zones. That happens in the afternoon. I'm probably at my office desk much of the day, but I'm not actually rehearsing, practicing and playing the flute.

I'm about to start a new project on Jan. 1 of [2022]. In a couple of weeks, I will begin the next album. The great thing is that I have no idea what it's going to be about.

At nine o'clock on the first of January, I will open my mind and heart to the visiting muse, who — should she decide to visit — hopefully, by 10 o'clock, I'll have the beginnings of some kind of flicker of an idea. And by lunchtime, I might have a few ideas. And over the period of the next three or four weeks, I might think I'd completed the first draft of something — musically and lyrically — for a new album.

That's partly wishful thinking, and partly putting myself on the spot. I like the idea of challenging myself to do what I say I'm going to do, and usually managing to do it, as I have done since 2011 with Thick as a Brick 2, the Homo Erraticus album, the String Quartets album, the Zealot Gene album. I've set out to do those things at a certain point, and I like to think I get results.

But sooner or later, I will meet the dreaded writer's block and probably burst into tears or have to be carried into my bed.

So there's nothing to reveal about the next album, because you haven't even opened your mind to the ether yet.

Well, no. I think the thing is that if I started dwelling on that now, I would start to have some ideas, and it's too early. I just want to wait for that magic moment to present itself.

Donovan On His New Single "I Am The Shaman," His Upcoming Animated Series & The Role Of The Shaman In Everyday Life

Songbook: How Bruce Springsteen's Portraits Of America Became Sounds Of Hope During Confusing Times

feature

Songbook: How Bruce Springsteen's Portraits Of America Became Sounds Of Hope During Confusing Times

In this edition of Songbook, GRAMMY.com explores how Bruce Springsteen's empathy for his working-class characters evolved alongside his own commercial success. The Boss is the subject of a new exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum, Bruce Springsteen Live!

GRAMMYs/Oct 14, 2022 - 07:00 pm

If you knew nothing else about him there’s still a good chance you’d recognize Bruce Springsteen by the name "The Boss." The nickname predates his entire career as a recording artist, going back to his days as a teenage bandleader at the Jersey Shore. In a bit of amusing irony, it’s also a name that stands in complete contrast to his 50 year canon of songs from the perspective of working-class folks. "I hate being called the boss," Springsteen admitted in a 1999 biography. "I hate bosses." 

In "The Wish," a 1987 studio outtake eventually released on Tracks in 1998, Springsteen’s narrator traces his adult prosperity as The Boss back to a single childhood Christmas when his mother bought him a "brand-new Japanese guitar." The lyrics echo Springsteen’s real-life story of his own first electric guitar — a Japanese-made Kent, that he purchased for $70 in 1964 with the help of a loan his mother had taken out. Fifty-seven Christmases later, in December 2021, Springsteen sold his fifty-year catalog of songs for a record-setting $550 million dollars.

Over the course of those 50 years, Springsteen has won 20 GRAMMY Awards, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and a Tony Award for his one-man show "Springsteen on Broadway." Though still one EMMY Award short of a full EGOT, he’s nonetheless made do with honors like the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him in 2016 by President Barack Obama (with whom he would later host a podcast and write a New York Times bestselling book) and a planet — 23990 Springsteen — named in his honor. 

From his inauspicious start to his initial commercial peak in the 1980s, and through a career resurgence in the early 2000s, one of the Boss’ most remarkable achievements is that his songs have never seemed to lose their blue-collar everyman perspective. If anything, Springsteen's early climb to success found him advocating more fiercely and empathetically for the American working class. Over the decades and 20 studio albums, he established an unmatched pedigree for literary power and modern everyman myth-making, — powers that would eventually put him back in the spotlight at a time when America desperately needed those types of stories.

In this edition of Songbook — and ahead of the launch of  Bruce Springsteen Live! at the GRAMMY Museum — GRAMMY.com explores how The Boss’s empathy for his working-class characters evolved alongside his own commercial success in the 1970s, and how that reputation gave way to his comeback in the 2000s.   

"A town full of losers": 1972 - 1975 

Bruce Springsteen was only 23 years old when he signed to Columbia Records in 1972, but had already been thoroughly fawned over by local live music critics and industry types who were hailing the young songwriter as something like "the next Bob Dylan." 

Although his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and its September followup The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle both underperformed commercially compared to that effusive praise, the young songwriter was beginning to carve out his thematic niche, expanding granular portraits of Jersey Shore life into ambitious outsized literary dramas. The sophomore record closes on a 10-minute-long rock opera called "New York City Serenade" set in a brutal and desperate vision of the Big City that poses a constant threat to the song’s impoverished fictional protagonists: "It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute," Springsteen whispers. "So walk tall / Or baby, don’t walk at all."

After the commercial disappointment of the first two records, released less than a year apart, Columbia offered a massive hail mary budget to Springsteen and the newly-minted E Street Band for their third record, which they recorded over a grueling and obsessive 14 month period. When it was finally released in 1975, Born To Run became a breakthrough record for the band almost in spite of Columbia’s similarly aggressive marketing campaign. The album, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, showed  steady growth in its first few weeks on the backs of a successful word-of-mouth radio campaign, itself based on a leaked early mix of the title track.

The real-life underdog story of Born To Run bubbles up under every beat and every word, with an inherent drama that builds gentle tracks into dense and theatrical finales. Overeager characters like the narrator of "Born To Run" talk themselves through feverish and impassioned cases for escaping the "death trap" of small town life and an existence doomed to "sweat[ing] it out on the streets / Of a runaway American dream."

The long-winded narrator of "Thunder Road" puts the stakes more bluntly: "It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win." The abstraction between those characters and their authors — a young band mounting a last-ditch effort at breaking out of the local bar band circuit into a tangible future in music — allows Born To Run to point outwards to a much broader feeling of American restlessness: the particularly youthful and overzealous belief that our potential in life is limited only by our force of will.

"I ain’t nothin’ but tired": 1978-1984

As Born To Run lifted the band into steady commercial success, Springsteen's portraits of working class life were growing increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic. Throughout their 1978 followup Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen recharacterizes working class restlessness as a self-destructive impulse that drives the album’s characters into crime and compulsive thrill in a meager attempt at escaping from the endless grind of their working lives. In 1980 they released their biggest hit yet, "Hungry Heart" — a misleadingly upbeat lead single from The River in which a narrator tries to use restlessness as an excuse for suddenly abandoning his wife and kids. 

The title track of The River mines an even more devastatingly ordinary sense of realism in telling the story of a teenage couple whose relationship is eroded over the years by the whim of the volatile economic conditions around them. Like before, Springsteen dangles a symbol of escape — a nearby river where the couple used to swim in their honeymooning days — but after years of growing alienation it starts to become a symbol of a life they were never allowed to have, and a relationship that was doomed from the beginning. "Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?" Springsteen sings quietly in the climax, through clenched teeth. "Or is it something worse / That sends. me down to the river / Though I know the river is dry?"

Nebraska, released in 1982, was the first album Springsteen had ever recorded without the E Street Band. Assembled from a set of cassette demos Springsteen had recorded alone at home, the album’s stark and lonely acoustic landscapes matched an even bleaker assessment of poverty and the American Dream. Its characters — outcasts, outlaws, and children who seem doomed to become one or the other — speak through Springsteen with a soft and inarticulate reservedness about a world of  economic chaos and  violence that was both fundamental and inescapable. 

The album begins almost identically to Born To Run: the narrator pulls up to a house where a girl stands out front, and eventually they drive off together in an attempt to escape their prescribed lot in life. But where "Thunder Road" had found personal urgency in a vague sense of autobiography, "Nebraska" is a true crime story narrated from the perspective of real-life spree killer Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old garbage collector who killed 11 people across Wyoming and Nebraska with his girlfriend in 1957 after his economic anxiety gave way to an epiphany that "dead people are all on the same level." 

Springsteen’s retelling withers the triumphant climax of "Thunder Road" into a resigned and uncertain declaration of inevitability: "They wanted to know why I did what I did," Springsteen murmurs. "Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world."

Born In The USA, Springsteen’s colorful and energetic 1984 reunion with the E Street Band, would become not only Springsteen’s best selling record, but one of the best selling records of all time. Culled largely from the same writing sessions as Nebraska, its fist-pumping maximalism only barely obscures the lyrics’ continued descent into economic fatalism.

Its widely-misinterpreted, largely ironic title track is really a seething indictment of the United States’ treatment of returning war veterans; even the bouncy pseudo-nursery rhyme chorus of "Working on the Highway" openly bears its total resignation ("Working on the highway, laying down the blacktop / Working on the highway, all day long I don’t stop"). "Dancing In The Dark," which won Springsteen his first GRAMMY in 1985, spins existential defeatism into something between a sad boy pickup line and a statement of solidarity: "I ain’t nothing but tired… Man I win’t getting nowhere / I’m just living in a dump like this," its narrator complains at first. "I’ll shake this world off my shoulders," he decides later. "Come on, baby, this laugh’s on me."

The album’s most subdued offering, "My Hometown," sheds the gentlest and most personal light on Springsteen’s hardened relationship to the conditions of the American working class as its narrator softly tangles nostalgic memories with an unflinching look at his hometown’s brutal history of racial tension and economic turmoil. When the town’s textile mill shuts down, putting a huge number of residents out of work, he finally decides to pack up his family and move away but implores his son to take one last look at where he comes from.

The second verse alludes to a real incident of racist violence that occurred in Springsteen’s own hometown of Freehold, New Jersey in the 1960s. Ironically, in 1986, two years after the song was released, Freehold closed its main manufacturing plant, a 3M factory, leaving hundreds of local laborers out of work. The Boss, at the height of his fame, returned home to perform at a benefit rally for the union workers being laid off, donating $20,000 himself. 

"Let me be your soul driver": 1987 - 1995

Over the previous 14 years, as Springsteen crawled out of Freehold and into success and stardom, the conditions for the American working class had grown steadily worse. His increasing urgency in portraying blue collar desolation during that period shows an innate understanding of that new development, in spite of his own escape. By the end of Born In The U.S.A., Springsteen had arrived at a complex and difficult truth: You can’t change where you come from, and the lucky few who manage to escape their economic circumstances will always inherently be leaving a whole "town full of losers" — many of them family — behind. 

By the early 90’s Springsteen was living in Los Angeles with his family, and had unclenched his fists a little on the three solo albums (Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town) that followed Born In The U.S.A. In 1995, on the heels of his first Greatest Hits collection, Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad — a spiritual sequel to Nebraska that applied its sense of stark isolation and themes of a broken American dream to stories that, in several cases, highlighted the experiences of undocumented immigrants.

The album won that year’s GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and proved just another dimension in the Boss’ legacy as an empathetic and unrelenting champion of the extraordinary bravery of ordinary folks persevering in thankless lives of hard work. Not long after, Springsteen decided to move back to New Jersey to raise his kids only a short drive away from where he grew up.  

"I am the nothing man": 2002-2014 

It would be seven years until Springsteen released his next album, The Rising, his first collaboration with the E Street Band in 18 years. Inspired by the September 11th attacks and at least one Asbury Park resident’s personal plea to Springsteen that "we need you now," The Rising intentionally finds a broader and more hopeful streak in its stories of ordinary people’s capacity for perseverance. 

Dense with simple and earnest affirmations ("we’re going to find a way" / "it’s going to be okay" / "I’m going to believe") that somehow manage never to feel naïve or condescending, Springsteen and the E Street Band begin to take a more deferential perspective. That view would continue through the aughts, as the band continued to look loss and destruction in the eye but reshift focus onto the immense bravery of their characters in the face of chaos and confusion. Though the band’s bleaker songs had certainly never lacked empathy, the determination to wear it more proudly on their sleeves in The Rising marked the beginning of a commercial and creative renaissance — one which  found Springsteen more comfortably inhabiting a role as a spokesperson for the ordinary people of an increasingly turbulent America.

During the 2004 Presidential election, Springsteen finally abandoned the pretense of separating his career and his partisan politics. He toured in support of Democratic nominee John Kerry; his 2005 solo album Devils and Dust empathizes, partly, with the disorienting experiences of soldiers fighting in the Iraq War; the next year, he used a record of Pete Seeger covers (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) to make his most opaque and comprehensive declaration of his populist political beliefs. 

2007’s Magic, a meditation on the erosion of personal freedoms in the Bush era, uses imagery of apocalyptic premonitions and magic tricks to tell stories about the inherent humanity of ignoring warning signs in an effort to believe someone who claims to have your best interests in mind. The complexity of that project — to characterize the era by attempting to empathize with, rather than denounce, the Americans who voted to re-elect Bush — feels perfectly Springsteenian in an era where political art was rapidly becoming the partisan battleground we continue to see today.

"We’ll meet at the house of a thousand guitars": 2019-present 

During the Obama era, Springsteen and the E Street Band released three albums that returned to familiar stories of working class perseverance, with an overall attitude of building back: Working On A Dream in 2009, Wrecking Ball in 2012, and High Hopes in 2014. Then after five years (his longest gap between albums since The Rising) he released an inspired and imaginative new highlight, Western Stars — a record written and arranged in the style of the orchestral country pop of Springsteen’s youth. 

This earnestness and more personal sense of nostalgia carried over into 2020’s Letters To You, an intimate and personal record inspired by the loss of longtime E Street Stalwarts Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. In September 2022, Springsteen announced that his next record, Only The Strong Survive, would be a collection of cover songs from the classic songbook of his youth.

For any other artist of his stature and tenure, these nostalgic indulgences would probably indicate a sort of phoning-in — but for Springsteen they feel like a surprisingly immediate start to a new chapter. At worst, they’re a well-earned self-indulgence after countless albums of selfless advocacy and careful listening outside his own experiences; at best, they’re a reminder, after all that time, of his own deep and tightly-held ties back to the pantheon of characters in his songs. 

Either way, the path ahead is imminent proof of a career built on an organic ebb and flow of inspiration, imploring us to trust Springsteen in his pursuit and discovery of new forms of urgency and realism in his storytelling.

It wouldn’t be wild to argue that he’s earned that trust in his listeners. He is, after all, The Boss. 

Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Guided By Voices' Current Lineup — So Far

Songbook: The Complete Guide To The Albums, Visuals & Performances That Made Beyoncé A Cultural Force
Beyoncé

Source Photos (L-R): Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Parkwood Entertainment; Peter Kramer/Getty Images; Larry Busacca/PW/WireImage for Parkwood Entertainment

feature

Songbook: The Complete Guide To The Albums, Visuals & Performances That Made Beyoncé A Cultural Force

In honor of Women's History Month, GRAMMY.com is celebrating 28-time GRAMMY winner Beyoncé with a complete guide to the groundbreaking albums, visuals and stage moments that shaped her singular art and vision

GRAMMYs/Mar 7, 2022 - 02:42 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.

One name says so much: Beyoncé. Throughout her 20-plus-year career, the 28-time GRAMMY-winning artist has inspired awe with a divine voice, top-notch performances and thorough bodies of work, demonstrating a complete mastery of her craft.

Before she became the most-awarded artist in GRAMMY history, Beyoncé was a young Houstonian singing alongside her childhood friends in the hip-hop/ R&B girl group, Girl’s Tyme, which would later become Destiny’s Child. Under the tutelage of her father Mathew — and with legendary acts like Tina Turner, Michael and Janet Jackson as her inspirations — Beyoncé continued to hone the gifts that would eventually make her an icon.

After garnering her first two GRAMMY wins with Destiny’s Child in 2001, Beyoncé’s star continued to grow. Her first solo album, Dangerously In Love, further proved Beyoncé was a force to be reckoned with. She collected five GRAMMYs at the 46th GRAMMY Awards in 2004, a then-record for female artists that Beyoncé has since broken. (Bey received a record six awards at the 56th GRAMMY Awards in 2009, an achievement that speaks volumes of her tireless ability to outdo only herself.)

While the accolades are a bonus, Beyoncé’s cultural impact and overall mission to serve her community are the most integral aspects of her career. She defies the artistic confines society often places on Black artists in order to highlight the community’s significance. Whether it’s joining the Super Bowl Halftime show to relay an important message about Black pride, or celebrating the African diaspora in her visual album Black Is King, she’s kept the sanctity, influence and power of the Black community intact, while creating unmatched lanes for herself as an artist. 

There’s never a wrong time to celebrate the musical achievements of "Big B," so GRAMMY.com is revisiting the "world-stop" moments of this legendary act — from her albums to her eye-popping performances, and everything in between.

Beyoncé, The Artist

B’Day (2006)

Released to coincide with her 25th birthday, Beyoncé’s sophomore solo effort B’Day invites listeners to a music party fit for a queen. The ‘70s-inspired LP was reportedly recorded in a span of three weeks, though its short gestation period doesn’t render it incomplete. 

B’Day explores the gamut of R&B, funk and pop, and signals both a turning point in Beyoncé’s personal maturity and a shift in the approach to her artistry. Recorded with live instrumentation, B’Day features production from The Neptunes ("Kitty Kat"), Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins ("Deja Vu"), and Swizz Beatz ("Ring The Alarm," "Get Me Bodied"), and finds Beyoncé at her (then) boldest, serving as a co-arranger, writer and producer on each track.

The album also showcases solo Bey’s earliest forms of sexual liberation and autonomy, evident by party starters like "Green Light" and "Freakum Dress." She also gives listeners the balladry they’ve come to love with "Irreplaceable" and "Resentment." When you think of Beyoncé, you’re probably thinking of hits from B’Day — which is indicative of how integral it is to her discography.

4 (2011)

4 is Beyoncé’s first time creating a cohesive body of work after becoming managerially independent from her father. Through the effort, fans are gifted with something they truly want: a look into the generally-private life of Queen Bey. The album could be seen as the catalyst for the mature and vulnerable themes found in BEYONCÉ and Lemonade.

Much of the album’s material focuses on monogamous love, but there’s no shortage of empowering, women-centered anthems one now expects from Beyoncé. A showcase of her prowess, 4 marries the subjects of relationships and feminine independence without being contradictory.

4 also gives listeners a taste of Beyoncé’s ability to traverse genre through multiple sources of sonic inspiration, from the funky, Fela Kuti-inspired "End Of Time," to "Run The World (Girls)," which samples Major Lazer’s dancehall-heavy hit, "Pon De Floor." 

Read More: For The Record: The Creative Rebirth Of Beyoncé On 4

Lemonade (2016)

Perhaps her most critically and culturally-lauded body of work, Beyoncé’s sixth album Lemonade crosses genres with ease, while providing an emotional catharsis unlike any project she’d released prior. 

Through a journey of head-banging rock anthems ("DON’T HURT YOURSELF"), alternative R&B ("6 INCH") and country ("DADDY LESSONS"), Bey unleashes a warm sonic embrace for Black women aimed at collective healing. Lemonade is accompanied by a stunning visual component directed by several lauded filmmakers, and features public figures from Serena Williams to Zendaya.

While the project controversially received just two GRAMMYs out of the nine it was nominated for at the 59th GRAMMY Awards, Lemonade’s cultural impact has proven to be enormous. With the album, Beyoncé used her platform to speak directly to her community in a poetic and nuanced way. This effort didn’t go unnoticed and will be celebrated for years to come.

RENAISSANCE (2022)

Due to Beyoncé’s regression back to a rather traditional album rollout, her seventh studio album, RENAISSANCE, didn’t crash land into our headphones like her previous two solo efforts. However, the 16-track project still managed to pack a powerful punch. The first of a reported album trilogy is drenched in dance music influence, featuring tracks that carry house, disco, afrobeats, dancehall and bounce vibes.

According to a note Beyoncé shared on her website upon releasing RENAISSANCE, she made the album to honor the "fallen angels" of the music scene and her beloved Uncle Jonny, who died as a result of AIDS-related complications. Much like the dance music and club scene that sparked a revolution in the 20th century, the album urges listeners to choose life, love and freedom despite the calamity found in the world. 

One of the major hallmarks of the album is Beyoncé’s reclamation of the Black and brown, queer and trans beginnings of dance music. With LGBTQ+ friendly tracks like the ballroom-inspired “PURE/HONEY” and the self-love anthem “ALIEN SUPERSTAR,” Beyoncé reconfigures the sounds and spaces that became became integral to the communities that needed them most throughout RENAISSANCE.

Beyoncé, The Visual Artist

The "Self-Titled" Era (2013)

While Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth solo album made headlines for its out-of-nowhere release, the self-titled era is also revered for its 17 music videos, all of which were released simultaneously.

The feat was unparalleled, as each video was (seemingly) filmed in secret with different directors at the helm. The Hype Williams-directed "Blow" features a neon-lit roller skating rink befitting from the funky Pharrell, Timbaland and J-Roc-produced beat; the "Haunted" video was made by Jonas Åkerlund, and features Beyoncé entering a spooky, sexy mansion.

"It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion," Beyoncé said in the self-titled mini-documentary about crafting a visual album. "I wanted people to hear the songs with the story that’s in my head, because that’s what makes it mine."

Formation (2016)

Beyoncé dropped the song and video for "Formation," the first single from her then-unannounced album Lemonade, at the start of Black History Month and makes strong points about the importance of Black pride and self-love. ("I like my baby hair with baby hair and Afros," she sings.) 

The video was shot by Melina Matsoukas — director of the visual for Bey’s image-conscious anthem "Pretty Hurts" — and largely pertains to protecting Black lives and abolishing police brutality. Near its conclusion, the words "Stop Shooting Us" are seen spray painted on a wall, while a young Black boy’s fearless dancing prompts police to put their hands up (a powerful flip of the "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot" slogan and gesture coined in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown by police). Her performance of the song at the Super Bowl Halftime show just a day later features several pro-Black moments, such as dancers donning Black Panther berets and choreography featuring the Black Power salute. 

While the performance and video were criticized by those who didn’t understand its overall point, they were both praised by many who did. And even better? Beyoncé announced the Formation World Tour immediately after leaving the Super Bowl stage.

Black Is King (2020)

Disney’s The Lion King received the live-action treatment in 2019, featuring Beyoncé as the voice of lioness Nala. Bey curated the soundtrack accompanying the film, The Lion King: The Gift, which showcases how far-reaching Africa’s influence spreads in music.

Tying everything together, Beyoncé released a visual component to The Gift in summer 2020. A musical "thank you" to Africa, Black Is King puts a modern twist on The Lion King. A diverse cast and crew were billed alongside Beyoncé, who starred in, co-directed and co-wrote the project. 

Stunning landscapes, traditional African hairstyles and ornate costumes were crucial to the film’s storytelling. Upon its release on Disney+, it was universally praised for uplifting the African diaspora, as well as placing an importance on maintaining and celebrating Black culture’s distinct roots.

Read More: Inside The Visual World Of Beyoncé And Black Is King, Her "Love Letter" To Black Men

Beyoncé, The Performer

GRAMMYs

Beyoncé is no stranger to the GRAMMY stage, performing multiple times over her illustrious career. One of her most memorable GRAMMY moments is her duet with Prince, which opened the 2004 ceremony. Beyoncé croons along as Prince shreds his signature purple guitar to a medley of hits, from "Purple Rain" to Bey’s "Crazy In Love." 

A few years later at the 52nd GRAMMY Awards ceremony, Beyoncé proved her performance prowess with a rendition of "If I Were A Boy" from her album I Am… Sasha Fierce. She took total control of the moment with a powerful strut down the aisles, pairing her unmatched vocals with hair-swinging choreography. She also interwove GRAMMY winner Alanis Morissette’s breakup hit "You Oughta Know" into the performance.

Her most recent performance on the GRAMMYs stage occurred during the 2017 ceremony. Although she was several months pregnant with twins, Beyoncé made sure to put on a show while singing "LOVE DROUGHT" from Lemonade. From the dancers and choreography, to the ornate set and costumes, to the layered intention behind the performance, the visually stunning spectacle was one to remember.

Read More: Beyoncé Created A Space To Celebrate Black Culture At Coachella & More Things Homecoming Taught Us

Breaking Ground

Several times in her career, Beyoncé has been "the first" to do something. She was the first solo female artist to headline the legendary Glastonbury Festival in 2011, performing a 90-minute set of her biggest hits including "Baby Boy," "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" and "Sweet Dreams." Did we mention she was  also pregnant during this performance with her first child, future GRAMMY winner Blue Ivy Carter?

No performance, however, compares to her Coachella Music Festival set in April 2018. Now known as "Beychella," Beyoncé not only broke ground as the first Black woman to headline the festival, but she completely set a new bar for live performances. The superstar’s entire set was an homage to HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), complete with a full band, majorettes, Greek letters and more.

Songbook: How Pop Icon Christina Aguilera Traversed Two Cultures & Languages Across Her Discography