Crest Of A Knave
Chrysalis Records, 1987
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/27/2004
At the time Crest Of A Knave was released, Jethro Tull was trying to find a their niche in the chaotic world of popular music. The music scene at the time was volatile to say the least. The "new wave' had crested and in its synth-pop backwash, electronica and edgy alt-rock were finding a foothold. Pseudo-metal hair bands were topping the charts. Hip-hip was becoming bigger and bigger, and progressive rock was foundering for a foothold in a changing market. It's no surprise then, the outcry when Tull walked away with a Grammy for "Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance," casting aside the likes of Aerosmith and Mettalica. Wait a minute, the guys with the flute? And the woodsy folksongs? Those guys?
Deserved or not, you can decide for yourself. Me personally, I was ecstatic. For almost 3 decades Tull, and more so its founder Ian Anderson, had been much eschewed by the press and critics, while amassing a fervent following of dedicated fans, and many gold and platinum releases. After being almost completely ignored in terms of industry recognition for so long, some found Tull's receipt of the award to be small comfort relative to their impressive body of work.
Crest Of A Knave hit the perfect note for Tull, finding a comfortable place between the progressive folk-rock that was their legacy, and the inevitable electronic elements that were rising in popularity. The foundation for this album, more so than any for some time, was the virtuoso guitar playing by Martin Barre. Barre is responsible for the harder sound of this album, and it's just what the band needed to give this album the stylistic power that had been sorely lacking since Songs From The Wood.
The album opens with pulsing synthesizers that immediately give way to Barre's powerful riffing to kick off "Steel Monkey," almost as if to say, "yeah we got the damn synths, but they're nothing next to a properly wielded six-string." That initial blast of guitar is a statement, announcing that this, above all else, is a guitar album. Those who enjoy the harder side of Tull's sound should relish this disk (the first half especially). "Steel Monkey" is a blast of pure hard rock, as is "Jump Start" which starts off with a slow creep, and ends up in a blistering exchange of guitar and flute.
One of the best tracks on this disc, "Farm On The Freeway," is very likely the song that pushed this album into Grammy territory. Anderson's story of the loss of rural farmland to big business, and the selling of a son's birthright, starts off slowly, with Anderson's flute providing a soft, melancholy framework for Barre to play against. The tale it tells is a sad one, and one that reflects a common occurrence in both the U.K. and the U.S., the independent farmer being pushed aside by progress and greed. "Nine miles of two-strand topped with barb wire / Laid by the father for the son" is how Anderson describes the family farm. The sad results are revealed: "Now they might give me compensation / That's not what I'm chasing. / I was a rich man before yesterday / Now all I have got is a check and a pickup truck / I left my farm on the freeway." This intelligent song becomes a showcase for some incredible playing by both Anderson and Barre. This arrangement has a tangible feel and texture to it, which you don't find many bands capable of. The mournful flute and Anderson's lyrics combine to paint a vivid picture of an all-too familiar story.
The centerpiece of the album is the brilliant "Budapest." At just over 10 minutes, a song of this nature is a big part of the album's success. The older Tull fans crave more involved and lengthy pieces, and "Budapest," besides featuring Anderson's typically witty lyrics, is another showcase for Barre and Anderson's playing. The song is one of two in which Anderson reveals some of himself, describing his adventures meeting women in foreign countries. It's refreshing to see an artist being candid about himself, especially regarding age. Being old (or older) in the music industry can be the end of a career, but Anderson seems to embrace middle age, and even has a sense of humor about it. For example, in "Said She Was A Dancer": "Said she was a dancer / If I believed her it was my business… / Well, maybe you're a dancer, and maybe I'm the King of Old Siam / I thought it through… best to let the illusion roll."
Another harder, yet very melodic song is "Mountain Men" which finds Anderson writing about one of his common themes, war and the men who get sent off to fight them -- in this case, the descendant of a Scottish Highlander. The arrangement of this is Tull at their best, pulling together the lyrical imagery and the music into a perfect union. This song has that uniquely British feel that Tull is well known for. One of the things I love about these guys is that they don't forget their roots. They are Brits, and they sound like it. So many European artists don't retain any identity as to where they are from. You can listen to them and neither the voices nor the music reveal who they are. There is no doubt as to who Tull are, and where they are from. The open verse of "Mountain Men" is typically of that:
"The poacher and his daughter throw soft shadows on the water in the night A thin moon slips behind them as they pull the net with no betraying light. And later on the coast road, I meet them and the old man winks a smile. And who am I to fast deny the right to take a fish once in a while? I walk with them; they wish me luck when I ship out on the Sunday from the Kyle. And from the church I hear them singing as the ship moves sadly from the pier."
The reference to the poacher and his daughter really doesn't relate to the songs, it simply adds color and life to the story and helps set the stage for the rest of the song. A little creative effort goes a long way to flesh the song out in a satisfying way.
There are a couple of weaker points on the disc, most notably the forgettable ballad "Waking Edge." "Dogs In Midwinter" is also a little disappointing. It has all the traits of a good Tull song, with the feel of the English countryside in the bright keys and flute, but is lackluster in comparison to the more energized tracks on this album. A nice enough song, but lacking in power and a little unsatisfying; it never gets the push it needs to be great. On another album it might have stood out, but here it lacks the power of its hard-rocking brethren.
Closing up this album is another blistering rocker, "Raising Steam," which could easily take up where "Locomotive Breath" left off. A similar driving rhythm, and another opportunity for Barre to display his guitar prowess, complete an excellent album. Crest Of A Knave really has a little of everything that Tull fans have come to expect. The slower songs retain just enough grit, and the hard rocking number keep it in balance. Controversy or not, it was a Grammy well-deserved, both for a great album and an incredible career.