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Thick as a Brick Analysis: Jethro Tull's Concept Album—Unserious Joke or Serious Art?
Fans of musicians like Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and Arlo Guthrie are no doubt familiar with songs stretching above the ten-minute mark. And fans of bands like The Who, Rush, and Pink Floyd are familiar with entire albums built around one narrative or theme. But fans of Jethro Tull's fifth album, Thick as a Brick, are automatically familiar with both.
This strange album from 1972 contains just one album-length song, also called "Thick as a Brick," which was cut into two parts that filled both sides of the record on which it was originally distributed. But even when ignoring this song's gargantuan duration, Thick as a Brick is an odd album; it was produced with the intention of poking fun at the pretentiousness of the long, thematic, narrative format of music (often called concept albums), and especially of progressive rock, which it also is.
This makes the album a prime example of parody which is seemingly undercut by the album's success, with many missing the mockery and the album masquerading as a sincere expression for most listeners for decades. Much like how there are people like Nabra Nelson that see the novel Brave New World as a utopia rather than a dystopia, an artist's intention might be distant from how people ultimately interpret or accept their art. Thick as a Brick even hit the number one spot on the American, Canadian, and Australian charts shortly after its release. But after all, is the song really just one big joke, or are people right to be taking it so seriously?
Thick as a Brick: Ironic or Sincere?
In the years since its initial distribution, Ian Anderson has maintained that Thick as Brick was intended ironically, as a reaction against the insistence by critics and fans that the band's prior album, Aqualung, was a concept album. Thick as a Brick's packaging is plastered with humorous fake news stories on numerous topics, with the primary headline crediting the lyrics of Thick as a Brick to a fictional 8-year-old poet named Gerald Bostock.
Still, it is hard to take the stance that the album is completely tongue-in-cheek, considering the lyrical, philosophical, and musical similarity between this song and other Jethro Tull tracks, and considering the fact that Anderson has written and released two grand, conceptual sequels to the album (one about Gerald Bostock, and another presented from Bostock's perspective).
People considering the album over the years have come at it from the extremes of both sides. Some take Anderson at his word, that the song is thoroughly unserious, and instead talk about other attributes of the song, such as its notable length. Others go down the rabbit hole completely, insisting that Anderson meant to impart some kind of deep truth, and analyzing the meaning of each of his lyrics, line-by-line.
So I intend to take a middle-ground approach, understanding Anderson as a person writing a clever song with a sense of humor, but which nevertheless stays true to his overall philosophy. Now let's get started, and take a general look at those lyrics.
Some of Thick as a Brick's Lyrics:
The lyrics of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick, all written by Ian Anderson, total over 1400 words in length. Contained within that article-length piece of writing are modernist perspectival fragments, vaudevillian jokes, stinging indictments of authority, and quite a lot of nonsense. To illustrate my point about the song being serious as well as unserious, I would like to take a look at two typical passages. Here is the first, which is sung twice during the song:
Well! Make your will and testament.
Won't you? Join your local government.
We'll have Superman for president
Let Robin save the day.
These lines juxtapose commonplace, everyday activities with overstated, fantastical promises. The effect of this positioning is that the commonplace activities are presented as though they are as ridiculous as the fantasies. Or, perhaps more accurately, they showcase the speaker's opinion that anyone who pursues traditional obligations and idealistic goals has unrealistic expectations of reality.
At the same time, the lines are a joke. The joke is a sarcastic remark toward someone following the typical path and doing what is expected of them, of the form (to be read in an exaggerated sarcastic tone), 'Yeah, sure, just do A and we'll have B. I'm sure it's that easy.'
Such sarcasm plays off of the song's recurring theme of rebelling against conventional knowledge, as evidenced by its chorus' ending lines, "And the wise men don't know how it feels / to be thick as a brick." I would agree with the common interpretation of the chorus, which takes those lines to mean that there are some things which even the wisest members of society will necessarily not be able to know or experience.
Some More of Thick as a Brick's Lyrics:
So, perhaps you are willing to grant that Anderson is, as I say, toeing the line between silly and serious. Even so, you may yet wonder why Anderson's lyrics are so harsh toward conventional goals and life choices. For insight into this, let's take a look at another silly set of lines from the lyrics:
Let me help you pick up your dead
As the sins of the father are fed
With the blood of the fools and the thoughts of the wise
And from the pan under your bed.
Let me make you a present of song as
The wise man breaks wind and is gone while
The fool with the hour-glass is cooking his goose and
The nursery rhyme winds along.
Here one sees a set of lines at once more serious and more ridiculous than the set considered above. The primary images are of authority (with its apparent control of transgression and time) and vulgarity (with its comical, folksy associations and defiance of authority).
The bedpan and the breaking of wind are not the most vulgar images in the lyrics by a long shot, and the inclusion of such typically low-brow humor is in keeping with the overall theme of defying propriety and established wisdom by means of its antithesis, given variously as ignorance or vulgarity.
And notice, too, that this sort of thematic resonance works equally well whether or not Anderson included the lyrics just to elicit a laugh during recording. After all, it is in their very nature as subversive parody lyrics that such lines match the work as a whole.
On the subject of Anderson's motivations, one can take a closer look at the last four lines above. You've got the two references to persisting art ("a present of song" and "The nursery rhyme") coming up against—in fact, bookending—two references to expected, traditional concerns: knowledge, embarrassment, and inexorable time.
It is worth noting here that the reason that so many fans and critics called Aqualung a concept album is that several of the songs tarry with the idea that there is a big difference between a person with values and an institution instilling values (Aqualung draws a line between, for instance, personal beliefs and organized religion).
Add to this Aqualung's attention to marginalized communities like criminals and homeless people, and you can see what is going on in Thick as a Brick's references to art and societal expectations: artists, including Anderson, are vestiges of individual or small-group identity and expression in a world of overarching definitions, traditions, and endless expectations.
What do you think:
Is "Thick as a Brick" totally serious or totally ironic?
But now, in true Thick as a Brick style, let's set aside such seriousness. For, finally, it remains the case that Ian Anderson, and indeed all of the members of Jethro Tull, set out to make the album in the spirit of seeing how far outside the norm and how funny they could get. In an interview conducted in 2005, Anderson presented a statement which he has given in many forms over the years, on the subject of Thick as a Brick:
In my mind when it came to writing the next album, Thick as a Brick, was done very much in the sense of: 'Whuh, if they thought Aqualung was a concept album, Oh! Okay, we'll show you a concept album.' And it was done as a kind of spoof, a send-up, of the concept album genre.
So, I have no problem taking Anderson at his word when he begins his song with the line, "Really don't mind if you sit this one out." It is a spoof, and it was no concern to the band whether people were listening attentively or not. (Hence the several lengthy and wonderfully strange syncopated musical breaks.) This charmingly relaxed sentiment stands in blatant opposition to all of their contemporary musicians who were consciously making concept albums to share various 'revelations.' I have previously written about how other artists got this wrong, like how Anthony Burgess let his patronizing and moralizing nature stand in the way of the greatness of his novella A Clockwork Orange.
But even so, I am certainly glad that I did not take that opportunity to stop listening, as my own favorite lyric in the song comes just two lines later, and encapsulates my every worry and struggle as a writer: "I may make you feel, but I can't make you think." A sobering jab for ambitious, self-important artists, and one I try not to forget.
And I'm also glad that so many others have not taken that opportunity to stop listening, as what follows that opening line is not only a bizarre and enjoyable progressive rock odyssey, but also a piece of art with a whole lot of energy, a smattering of comedy, and an occasional resonant line of poetry. So next time you're on a long car ride, or in the gym, or filling time, set aside 45 minutes and listen to (or revisit) this classic album. Whether by provoking thought or eliciting laughter, it may make you feel.
Listen for yourself:
© 2016 Daniel Podgorski