Released in 1974, War Child found Jethro Tull at a crossroads in their career. Having had their previous album, the dense and generally grumpy A Passion Play, critically mauled and a subsequent mis-step by management that saw the band apparently announcing their retirement without their knowledge, War Child was the opportunity for the band to remove the egg from their collective face.
Initial signs for War Child were not promising though, as the album was initially envisioned as a soundtrack to an overly-complicated comedy film, which initially had luminaries like Leonard Rossiter and John Cleese pencilled in for involvement, as well as big name choreographers. Perhaps mercifully, the film itself didn’t progress beyond the initial planning stages, and so the plans for War Child were tastefully downscaled to a ten track standard-length album.
Jethro Tull’s two previous albums had been a pair of progressive rock epics, both albums consisting of one single track taking up both sides of the original vinyl. Thick as a Brick had been critically lauded and stands up today as a high point in Jethro Tull’s career and in prog rock in general, as it was a perfect synthesis of Tull’s musicality, lyrical playfulness, humour and repeated musical motifs. A Passion Play had been more of the same, but with the humour and playfulness omitted to suit the dark mood of the band at the time. On the surface of it, War Child was Tull’s return to songs of standard length and potential singles, however closer investigation reveals what a hotchpotch the album really was. A number of the songs on the album were re-recordings of material for Tull’s part-recorded, and then abandoned, follow up to Thick as a Brick. Closing track “Two Fingers” dated back even further and was a re-tooling of their unreleased 1971 single, “Lick Your Fingers Clean”. With such a mongrel pedigree and pressure on the band to make a good impression, you’d expect War Child to be one of the runts of the litter in terms of Jethro Tull’s output, but forty years after its release, it actually stands as one of their most pleasingly substantial releases.
The dramatically cinematic title track opens with the sound of blissful domesticity being shattered by artillery explosions and sets the tone for the album. Although heavy-handed, “War Child” finds Jethro Tull at their focused best, ably supported by a string quartet performing the arrangements of long time collaborator and future band member David Palmer. It has the feel of a much weightier lumbering epic than it actually is, but that’s when War Child’s party piece comes into play, as it changes pace with each track and runs the gamut between art-rock, oddly Elizabeathen folk flavourings, orchestral rock and even harks back to Tull’s beginnings as a blues band. This hit and run approach is at odds by the thematic unity on display on the band’s previous pair of albums, but it means that it makes for an oddly refreshing listen.
Variety is the watch-word throughout War Child, from the cart-wheeling rock of “Sealion”, to the strange fluidity of “Ladies”, to the relentless pace of “The Third Hoorah” and the oddly pop-orientated “Bungle in the Jungle”. It’s also something of a Trojan Horse of an album, as the fact that it is frequently overlooked obscures the fact that it contains some of Tull’s strongest material, not least the refreshing “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” and the playful “Only Solitaire”, both re-recordings of material from the abandoned Château d’Hérouville sessions. Perhaps best of all though is the closing “Two Fingers”, which stands as one of their greatest closing tracks and a general high point for accessible progressive rock.
Something else which marks War Child apart is its sound. It’s an exceptionally bright sounding recording, with each instrument being given its own space to breath and nothing sounding too crowded. The main beneficiaries of this are Ian Anderson’s acoustic guitar, the percussive strum of which drives many of the songs on the album forward, and John Evans’ piano, which makes its presence felt throughout the album, but nowhere more so than the title track. Anderson’s production of Tull’s albums is one of the reasons they had such a unique sound, as each instrument seems to have been recorded with the minimum of sound bleed from anything else being played at the time. Sometimes this approach produces slightly disorientating results, as Martin Barre’s guitar has a habit of leaping in out of nowhere, playing the song’s signature riff and then disappearing as promptly as it arrived instead of being a constant feature throughout the song in question. It’s an unusual approach for sure, but it has ensured that Tull’s albums have a feel that few other rock bands can boast, and nowhere more than on War Child, where even Jeffrey Hammond Hammond’s bass and Barriemore Barlow’s drums sound like they’re regularly playing two entirely separate rhythms simultaneously, without detracting from each other.
As pleasingly diverse, yet unified, as War Child is, recent reissues have included diverse bonus material, some of which was originally intended for the abandoned film soundtrack, such as the beautiful orchestral piece “War Child Waltz”. Other highlights include “Rainbow Blues”, a pleasingly accessible rock tune that was ill-served as a b-side, the frankly bonkers “Sealion 2”, which borders on immature silliness, and the dense rocker “Saturation”. Regardless of it’s surprisingly good qulity, “Rainbow Blues” and “War Child Waltz” aside, it’s difficult to envision how this additional material would have worked alongside the core album to produce a pleasing double album. Given its difficult gestation, some could consider War Child something of a compromise that was made when grander plans fell through, however listening to it next to the bonus material only confirms how Anderson and the rest of the band got it right when editing down all the available material to a pleasing single album.
Everything taken into account, its evident that under Anderson’s guidance, Tull did everything they possibly could to make War Child the strongest album it could have been given the circumstances. In the USA it was a big hit, as enthusiasm for Tull was at an all time high on that side of the Atlantic. Here in the UK it was a different matter though, as the critics had done their damage and War Child was the first Jethro Tull album to chart outside of the top ten and they would never regain the critical or commercial high ground again, regardless of the quality of the individual albums. It deserved a far better fate than it received at the time, however the current 40th anniversary reissue shows that it remains as close to the hearts of Tull fans as it ever was.