"The long haul back holds faint attraction"
1987’s Crest of a Knave went some way to re-establishing Jethro Tull as elder-statesmen of rock if not actual contenders. That album had even won a Grammy (and in doing so, annoyed a lot of Metallica fans), but other than that, it didn’t really break any new ground, other than being the sound of one of the biggest bands of the 70s trying to sound like other bands who had enjoyed bigger success in recent years. While Crest of a Knave had seen increased sales, and the Grammy farce had seen them grab the headlines for all the wrong reasons, ultimately it was the sound of a band resting on their laurels.
Okay, so what to do with the follow-up to a relatively successful come-back album then? Same again, but with a slightly darker tone? Okay, we’ll give it a shot, but we want to silence those that accused us of sounding old and tired don’t we? In short Rock Island is little short of a complete disaster. It tried to copy the blueprint that made Crest of a Knave a moderate success, but it only showed how hopelessly out of touch Tull were.
Several of the tracks on Rock Island only display the band as oily and lecherous old men, while others like “Rattlesnake Trail” and “Ears Of Tin” try and fail to rock mightily, elsewhere “The Whalers Dues” is yet another clumsy attempt at a protest song, and “Big Riff And Mando” has the dubious honour of being one of Tull’s worst songs. It says volumes that the two most memorable tracks on the album are the overlong title track which could have quite comfortably lost the last couple of verses without anyone complaining, and the utterly tasteless “Kissing Willie”, a song which everyone involved should be thoroughly ashamed of. At the end of the day, Rock Island is an album that includes a straight faced song celebrating the joys of having your family around at Christmas time. No wonder Metallica fans sniggered uncontrollably.
Rock Island is pretty much the nadir of Jethro Tull’s output, with only the equally shameful J-Tull Dot Com hanging its head in shame next to it in the proverbial naughty corner of the band’s career, and the frankly embarrassing Jethro Tull Christmas Album being the only one of their releases actually worse than it. The only positive thing I can say about Rock Island is that the artwork is some of the best on any Jethro Tull album.
If you happen to be a die hard Jethro Tull completist, Rock Island really should be one of your last purchases, as there’s little of any interest here, unless you’re fascinated by the sound of the once mighty falling. For everyone else, this is one to miss, and a reminder that some albums shouldn’t be forgotten for the very worst reasons.