A diner near my house has a sign — one of those jobs with the removable letters — that currently says: “STAND TALL WITH MILE HIGH MEATLOAF!”
Which brings us nicely to Jethro Tull’s 1970 album Benefit, the first (ahem) beneficiary of my new approach to blogging:
Spend a week listening to a single recording, to the near-exclusion of all others, and then write about it once you’ve soaked it in.
Why Benefit? I dunno. It always looked from afar like a record I’d like, but I’d never bought it. I’ve been in a Jethro Tull mood lately, too, for some reason.
Last week, motivated by repeated YouTube listens to “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” I finally bit down and did the deed.
I decided I would listen to Benefit again and again, and pat it on the head, and call it George, and get to know it intimately, and then spill all its secrets.
(For those who like backstory: Benefit, Tull’s third album, was the band’s first Top 10 album in the U.K. and barely missed being their first Stateside. It immediately precedes Aqualung in Tull’s discography, and is the band’s final album with the quite recently deceased Glenn Cornick on bass.)
In future I will have to give Jethro Tull albums at least a month to digest, I guess … because I leave my week with Benefit humming a few riffs, repeating a few lines, yet not feeling particularly closer to the music than I did when I pressed the download button.
Here’s the rundown, as tersely as I can put it:
– About half the songs are standard-issue 1970 Heavy Blooze, riffy and repetitious and rather turgid.
“Son” is probably the worst, with Ian Anderson’s voice at its most hop-suckingly bitter; but “Nothing To Say,” “To Cry You A Song” and “Play In Time” aren’t all that much better.
(“To Cry” has a couple of evocative lines, but you’ll get sick of the central riff several minutes before the band does.)
Martin Barre, a largely underrated guitar player, doesn’t really have a lot to say here: He soars and bends and goes up over the 12th fret like lead guitarists do, but little of what he plays is especially memorable. So the hard-rock stuff doesn’t stand out as a showcase for virtuosity, either.
– The moodier, more tuneful stuff works better than the Big Riffs do.
The aforementioned “For Michael Collins” (does anyone write songs about astronauts any more?) is catchy in a melancholy way and actually seems to have been constructed as a vehicle to express emotion, as opposed to a frame to hang riffs on.
“Alive and Well and Living In” explores some droney, modalistic, echt-1970 jazzisms for about two-and-a-half minutes and then checks out in a cloudy tinkle of piano. I like it fine, especially as a contrast to the heavy stuff.
Album opener “With You There To Help Me” begins gently and somewhat down, then ebbs and flows convincingly between quiet stretches and harder rock.
It ends in bursts of genuine energy, with Anderson’s manic flute and Barre’s sandpapery guitar trading fours — though if you listen, you’ll note that Anderson gets six bars to each four of Barre’s, perhaps a reflection even then of Tull’s balance of power.
(Or maybe it just works better for tension-and-release purposes; let’s not read too much into it.)
– For the most part, Anderson’s lyrics remind me of Frank Zappa’s description of most lyrics as “pitched mouth-noises.”
Even though Anderson is working within a language I have spoken for almost 40 years, I come away from most songs not knowing what he’s trying to say or what emotion he’s trying to convey.
This tends to limit one’s appreciation of a record.
– Album closer “Sossity, You’re A Woman” finds Anderson’s lyrical obliqueness paired with an equal or greater amount of musical obscurity. The result is an acoustic madrigal so musically knotty it’s difficult to listen to.
(yeah, I know. Great Art isn’t always in 4/4 time and it doesn’t always embed itself in the brain on first listen. I have tried to embrace “Sossity”‘s complexity and it kept pushing me away. Give it a listen; maybe you’ll have more luck than I did.)
– Finally, my version of Benefit came with four bonus tracks, three of which have some simple hook or melody that make me like them more than the stuff on the record. “Teacher,” which I enjoyed on rock radio as a kid, is the best-known, and also probably the best.
That, then, was my week with Benefit. Tull’s done better — much better — and I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone but the hardcore fan, who probably owns it already anyway.
What’s next? Check in next weekend.