Maybe it’s because Ian Anderson in particular and Jethro Tull in general never went away, but it came as a shock that “The Zealot Game” was their first album for 18 years. I guess it’s tricky, what do you do? Obviously you want to create, but then you don’t want to tarnish your legacy, and lets be honest, you couldn’t recreate your heyday even if you wanted to.
Which is why it comes as a real pleasure to say that with “…Game” Jethro Tull haven’t retrod “Aqualung”, say, but it could only have been work from the band who made it.
That much is absolutely clear after precisely eight seconds of its opener “Mrs Tibbets”. That’s as long as it takes for Anderson’s flute to hit and somehow there’s a comfort in knowing that they are back and everything is in place.
Then there’s the whimsy in the words: “drops in for tea and Eccles Cakes” is as British as can be. It could only be from the pen of a band like this. And if that wasn’t enough reason to love this, then it does that Tull thing of ripping a guitar solo out of nowhere. It’s worth sharing that I got into Jethro Tull after checking them out as a result of an article in the Iron Maiden fan club magazine about a decade ago, and they’ve always had a punch.
The harmonica on “Jacob’s Tales” is superb, as is the way that Anderson opines: “….Auntie Mabel loved you more/Loved you, loved you more than me” and these oblique lyrics are a feature that you can’t ignore throughout. The man himself explains them thus: “While I have a spot of genuine fondness for the pomp and fairytale story-telling of the Holy Book, I still feel the need to question and draw sometimes unholy parallels from the text. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly rear their heads throughout, but are punctuated with elements of love, respect, and tenderness.”
That seems to be the thread through the brilliant, brooding and haunting “Mine Is The Mountain”, while the title track sees the mask slip just a little and make clear his distaste for the polarising divisions in society: “The populist with dark appeal/The pandering to hate/Which xenophobic scaremongers/Deliver on a plate/To tame the pangs of hunger/And satisfy the lust/Slave to ideology/Moderation bites the dust” – he later talks about “twitter thunder”.
The first single from the record “Shoshana Sleeping” has a real groove and it comes in with a real poetry, and the folk element which is never too far away here, is all over “Sad City Sisters”, or “Barren Beth, Wild Desert John”, although as the latter builds, it does with a real heavier intent.
It’s a feature of the collection as a whole that whatever it does, “….Gene” does it with a rare brevity. There’s no excess fat on “The Betrayal Of Joshua Kynda” and the likes, and special mention here for John O’Hara’s piano.
“Where Did Saturday Go?” (and I’ve asked that many times, mostly on the way home down the M6 after watching my team lose again, but this probably isn’t the point!) is sun-dappled and its regrets are done with a real light air.
“Three Loves Three” is gently cajoling you, while “In Brief Visitation” is anything but. There’s a bit of a Led Zep IV feel about it, but the words long for more. It almost sounds angry, as does “The Fisherman Of Ephesus”, and yet, it still seems like some kind of Thomas Hardy anthology set to music, the words evoking some kind of countryside idyll, whatever they mean.
“The Zealot Gene” was five years in its gestation period. Originally planned for a 2020 release – indeed guitarist Florian Opahle has already moved on to pastures new – but it would have been a real shame if it had not seen the light of day. It is a superb record, both reflecting its times and still being ethereal, mystical almost. Even when Anderson was planning this in 2017, its doubtful that he’d imagined it would turn out as well as this.