For the Record: "A Passion Play"

Jethro Tull's epic 1973 concept album revisited

Let’s start with a quick quiz. Read the following lines, excerpted from the speech of Satan to the damned in a famous work:

“Summoned by name—I am the overseer over you.

Given this command to watch o'er our miserable sphere.

Fallen from grace, called on to bring sun or rain.

Occasional corn from my oversight grew.

Fell with mine angels from a far better place,

offering services for the saving of face.”

Who wrote these lines?

a) John Milton

b) T. S. Eliot

c) William Shakespeare

d) Christopher Marlowe

There are arguments for each. The content is Marlovian, the tone is Miltonic, but the metrical irregularity suggests Eliot, and the closing couplet keeps Shakespeare in the game.

However, none of these is correct. This passage comes from Jethro Tull’s dark 1973 masterpiece, “A Passion Play,” the only album the band released during their heyday that was almost universally disliked. Astonishingly negative reviews were published upon its release: among titles like “Tull: Enough is Enough” (Chris Welch, “Melody Maker) and “Jethro: Nothing to Get Passionate About” (Steve Clarke, “New Musical Express”), one finds such comments as this: “In tone, it is the ultimate exaggeration of self-indulgent English whimsy, an intellectual tease inflated with portent but devoid of wonder—in its cumulative expression mean and trivial” (Stephen Holden, “Rolling Stone”). The dense lyrics were considered juvenile, pretentious, and unintelligible, and the music, while thought better than the lyrics, was compared unfavorably to that of prior albums. The one-song structure was thought to be fatiguing, and due to the perceived opacity of the lyrics, the instrumentals were considered to be completely divorced from the words. All in all, “A Passion Play” was regarded as a flop, an overproduced marker of the band’s decline into irrelevance.


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