Jethro Tull: The Zealot Gene

The Zealot Gene, then, is a fantastic album, one that can’t help being a career overview in many ways, with a bit of something for every fan along Tull’s carnival road.

by Marshall Bowden

You never know what you’ll get when a renowned songwriter opens up the Bible. Sometimes you get Slow Train Coming. Sometimes you get The Zealot Gene. Ian Anderson’s relationship with religion and, perhaps, God, is a complicated, and a very human one. Going back to Aqualung, with one side subtitled ‘My God,’ religion and spirituality from both the divine and the human side has been a topic for Mr. Anderson’s pen. 

Here’s a look at my In Ten Tracks on Jethro Tull. Some favorites and a few outliers here, but these are some of my favorite Tull tracks.

But it turns out that The Zealot Gene, Tull’s latest (and the first album under the moniker for nearly twenty years), just like it’s predecessor, is much more than a broadside on religion. Just as with Aqualung and every other recording project Anderson has been involved in there’s much more to this latest album than that. Religion elbows for a place at the table along with politics, stories of human frailty, lust, and avarice as well as tales of the good-hearted and gentler side of human nature. Scientific progress, family life, and an appreciation for the bucolic English countryside all fit into the Jethro Tull scheme of things, presented in a musical setting that mixes English folk music, prog rock, sweet melodies, some hard rock guitar, and a bit of Monty Python insanity.

That right there, the sheer individuality of Anderson and of Jethro Tull as an ever-changing troupe of musicians who constantly recreate what Tull is, should certainly have resulted in the group’s admission to the hated Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Anderson himself has opined in a recent interview, that he doesn’t believe that Tull belongs there, largely because he sees it as an American thing, and Tull, while popular in the United States, has always maintained a distinctly British identity. 

The Zealot Gene, then, is a fantastic album, one that can’t help being a career overview in many ways, with a bit of something for every fan along Tull’s carnival road. But it also shows just how well Anderson commands the Tull language, able to write a collection of songs that use the language of Tull both lyrically and musically, and to have a group of musicians clearly up to the challenge of fleshing out his songs.

My first brush with Tull was scarcely a typical one. In 1980 while attending Berklee College of Music I went to see Tull at Boston Garden. Their show there on November 10th was the final time that Tull played the venerable, now demolished, venue.

I went with a fellow music student to see them even though I had never  listened to them and as a one time punk rocker pretty much mocked the whole concept of the band. But I was a little curious in 1980–this was the A tour, with Eddie Jobson, formerly of Roxy Music, playing his see-through violin and keyboards, including a bunch of synthesizers. This was seen as some sort of capitulation to the New Wave trend in popular music at the time, which is quite silly. Every prog band used them, Led Zepplin used them. What it really was is that Tull was not a synthesizer band, and while they had never stated themselves to be clean of the devil’s keyboards, like Queen, it was pretty obvious from listening that there was no oscillator tomfoolery going on. Adding insult to injury, all of the longstanding band members had left after the Stormwatch tour, with bassist John Glasscock not able to tour and passing away shortly after.

It was heresy, and my friend resented it, but he was lured, as were many Tull fans, by the fact that stalwart band member Martin Barre remained, and Fairport convention bassist Dave Pegg, who had toured behind Stormwatch in place of Glasscock, was also on board. Still, the record was a stepping off point for any number of fans who had seen the group through several changes already. What these folks missed was the fact that A provided a blueprint for the way forward for Tull. While the sound and production was a departure, the songs themselves were unquestionably Jethro Tull songs if one could get past the superficial changes in sound. In addition, Jobson was a solid supporter of the group’s musical structure, and nothing he plays is anything other than an attempt to contribute his unique talents to the blueprint that Anderson had created. 

That blueprint allowed Tull to flourish through the eighties even if their influence had shrunken and Anderson’s voice showed wear and tear, a fact that he learned to compensate for but which took a few releases to even out. Still, recordings like Crest of  a Knave and Roots to Branches showed there was life in the group and a sound that both continued the tradition while adding new layers. Jethro Tull became that old guy at the seafarer’s bar, telling his tales to anyone who’ll stop and listen and buy him a flagon of beer. 

Back to The Zealot Gene. It’s opening track, “Mrs Tibbets”, benefits from all those post-A Tull records. It sounds like it could have come from A or another late period Tull album, but the current lineup is definitely sharp and on their game.  Lyrically, it uses the Biblical story of Lot’s wife turning to face the destruction she and her husband are fleeing at Sodom and Gamorrah to frame the unleashing of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, illustrating perfectly Anderson’s approach to writing The Zealot Gene. He made a list of strong human emotions and then found Biblical references to those emotions. He used that underpinning as a reference point but didn’t restrict his inspiration to the actual Biblical passage, though he does use them in a few of the songs. In Anderson’s words “this is not a Bible lesson, this is just taking as examples elements of biblical text and then trying to see how they might relate to the world we live in today.” 

While there have been suggestions that this is the best album under the Jethro Tull banner since 1977’s Songs From The Wood, I’d say that the vibe of some of these tracks goes even further back, the group’s War Child album. Some of the material from that 1974 release date back to sessions for the previous record, the infamous A Passion Play. “Jacob’s Tales,” “Sad City Sisters,” and “Where Did Saturday Go” all feel like such classic Jethro Tull sounds, blending perfectly with the digital production and Covid-era recording techniques. Most of the recordings were done by the full band playing together in the studio, with sessions getting under way as far back as 2017. Following a Covid-induced hiatus Anderson finally completed some of the tracks himself last year with some of the band contributing via recorded files sent to the bandleader.

Still, Jethro Tull is meant to be a living band, and Anderson has hopes and plans to continue touring later this year after delaying during the height of the pandemic. And in all honesty, if I were still going to concerts with any degree of regularity, I’d probably take a look at this edition of the band and the chance to hear them play songs from The Zealot Gene and maybe a few old favorites back to back.

2 thoughts on “Jethro Tull: The Zealot Gene

  1. Good review, the album is excellent, and this version of the band is as tight as any I have heard since I saw my first show with my older brother in 1972 at the age of 13.
    After hearing Tull perform Thick as a Brick, I was forever an avid fan of the band.
    The Zealot Gene really delivers the classic Tull sound, and the music is entertaining with Ian’s voice solid throughout. Personal favorites are Sad City Sisters, Mrs. Tibbetts and
    the title cut. At the ripe age of 74 Ian continues to be a true musical legend and as a lifelong fan feel blessed that he is still writing music, lyrics playing awesome flute, acoustic guitar, harmonica, mandolin and Irish whistles. Tull fanatics, casual fans or novice listeners will enjoy this new record it is very well done and enjoyable to listen too.

    1. Hey, Brian, thanks for visiting NDIM and for reading the Tull piece. It is indeed magnificent to have such an strong, unexpected Tull record at this late date. Keep enjoying it, and hope to see you at NDIM again soon.

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