Thick As A Brick and the pleasures of the very, very, very long song

Thick As A Brick and the pleasures of the very, very, very long song

In 1971, British rock band Jethro Tull had its biggest hit worldwide with the LP Aqualung, which critics described as a concept album about religion, even though frontman Ian Anderson denied that the record was meant to be anything like the rock operas and classical-inspired progressive rock suites that had become increasingly popular in the early ’70s—the kind of music that Anderson claimed to despise. So Anderson decided to express his feelings about concept albums and prog-rock via parody, recording an album-length “song” called Thick As A Brick, complete with noodle-y organ solos and poetic passages that (as part of the album’s concept) are put forth as the work of a precocious schoolboy who won a contest. Thick As A Brick sold millions, though its wit is so dry and so subtle that many missed the joke. Over the past 40 years, Thick As A Brick has been slammed by prog-haters as an example of the genre at its most excessive, and embraced by prog-lovers for more or less the same reason.

It’s easy to understand the confusion. Listening to the new 40th-anniversary edition of Thick As A Brick, I was struck anew by how spry the record often is, beginning with an opening three-minute passage that’s less lumbering art-rock than folk-pop ditty (that has frequently been excerpted and played on the radio). But the heaviness does bull its way in, via pounding instrumental sections and extended stretches of impressionistic lyrics that anyone could easily mistake as sincere. Thick As A Brick goes through a lot of changes, but each piece follows organically from what precedes it, such that the record really does feel like a single song and not a suite or medley; and while Anderson’s word salad isn’t meant to tell a story, the lyrics do cohere around a single theme, about how we shouldn’t be so quick to put our faith in pulp heroes or “wise men.” There’s no reason not to take the album/song seriously—and no reason not to find it extremely pretentious, if you’re not into rock bands delivering 44-minute treatises on the human condition. 

Myself, I’m a huge fan of Jethro Tull’s first two albums, which are more blues-oriented, and I’m less enamored of the band’s stadium-rock side, as exemplified by Aqualung. But I love Thick As A Brick more with each passing year, whereas when I was younger, I typically only listened to the three-minute version of the song on the Jethro Tull greatest-hits collection M.U. Similarly, in my teens and 20s I used to focus the bulk of my Yes listening on The Yes Album and Fragile, which sport relatively compact songs, while over the past 10 years I find that I’d much rather listen to the more grandiose Close To The Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans—the latter of which I couldn’t even get through one side of a decade ago. It’s not that I think Thick As A Brick and Topographic Oceans are vastly superior to the other albums by Jethro Tull and Yes, or even as good as early-’70s rock music gets. I’m just older now, and more patient with songs that take a while to get where they’re going.

And it’s not just prog. Some of my favorite alt-rock songs of the last 20 years have been epics, such as Built To Spill’s “Untrustable/Pt. 2 (About Someone Else),” which over the course of its nine minutes evolves from a bratty Bob Dylan-style putdown—a kind of “Positively 4th Street” for the grunge set—into a surging jam laced with cosmic end-times jargon. Speaking of Dylan, he’s responsible for my favorite “very, very, very long song” of 2012: the 14-minute “Tempest,” a balladic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic that mixes historical facts with fleeting memories of Hollywood’s versions of the story. I was also happy this year to see long-song specialist Mark Kozelek return on his band Sun Kil Moon’s excellent Among The Leaves. While not as packed with sprawlers as the best Red House Painters albums, Among The Leaves still shows that Kozelek can stretch out with the best of them, taking his fans on winding journeys around the world and back into his own wryly melancholy headspace. And next week, avant-garde crooner Scott Walker will be releasing his new album Bish Bosch, featuring two songs that are around 10 minutes each, and one that pushes past 20. In preparation, I’ve been re-listening a lot to Walker’s Tilt and The Drift, enjoying their glacial slowness and songs that seem to reveal themselves one tone at a time.

These are all different approaches to the very long song—and I haven’t even gotten to any of the jazz records or jam bands in my collection—but they share a defiance of pop convention that allows them to find their own shape. Unconcerned with conforming to a three-minute verse-chorus-bridge structure, these songs can go wherever they like, whether that means holding to repetitive minimalism for a quarter-hour, breaking for two minutes of endurance-testing dissonance, or letting each member of the band take a solo. It’s like the difference between a newspaper article and a novel, or a TV sitcom and a movie. There’s nothing wrong with the rigid forms and built-in expectations of certain clearly defined mainstream media—in fact, when skillfully done, these sorts of entertainment are my favorites—but there’s also a lot of pleasure to be had from a story, song, or visual artwork that has no observable boundaries. They demand that we succumb; and when it comes to popular culture, I’d much rather succumb than stand aloof.

Weirdly, I think one of the main reasons why I’ve become a long-song junkie in my 40s is because of the “shuffle” mode on my MP3 player. I love shuffling. I love turning my entire music library over to chance, letting a miniature computer randomize the order of what I hear and when. I find that serendipity leads me to hear things I hadn’t before, to make connections between otherwise unrelated pieces of music, and to recognize that some artists don’t come off so well when their songs are played between some of the best rock, pop, and soul music of all time. At the same time, I do recognize that shuffling rewards short attention spans, making it easy for listeners to skip to the next song if the current one’s not doing anything for them. And unlike listening to an entire album—or a single-artist playlist—shuffling a whole MP3 library isn’t exactly an exercise in continuity, with each song building purposefully on the one before.

But a very long song can change the flow of a shuffle, and thus the flow of a drive or a walk—and thus the flow of a day. If I’m in a car and suddenly I hear Pink Floyd’s “Dogs,” or Cat Stevens’ “Foreigner Suite,” or Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do,” then I’m no longer bouncing merrily from one song to the next, but rather fully engaged with one song, letting it lead me along. I’m sure some of you have even had the experience of making several stops in a car while listening to a very long song, such that the song becomes even longer, expanding across a trip to the post office and a run to the grocery store. If Joni Mitchell’s “Paprika Plains” were to shuffle up at just the right time during my afternoon errands, its 16 minutes could end up taking the better part of an hour to get through. It would be almost like listening to an audiobook.

I’d rather a long song just pop up unexpectedly, as opposed to my actively choosing to play it. I’ve done plenty of the latter: carefully cueing up Bruce Springsteen’s “New York City Serenade” or Patti Smith’s “Land” on my portable cassette player before going out for a walk, timing it so that I get where I’m going right as the song fades, as though a jaunt down to the convenience store were some kind of legendary journey. But these days I prefer to be surprised—to have these leviathan songs lurking in the vast pool of my MP3 player, waiting to surface and awe me.

As I said, I get why some who like very long songs would still have no use for Thick As A Brick, which in form and intent is much different from an epic acoustic folk ballad, an extended blues jam, a Krautrock drone, a 12-inch new-wave dance mix, or any of the myriad other ways that music can profitably take up a lot of time. And no matter what Anderson says, I’m not sure that the mockery inherent in Thick As A Brick is pointed enough to distinguish itself from what it’s purportedly mocking. I just know that when I hear that telltale acoustic guitar strum and trilling flute, and hear Anderson sing, “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out,” I smile and settle back, knowing that “this one” is going to take a while.

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