A Passion Play is a 1973 concept album by Jethro Tull, their sixth album. This album moved the band further in the direction of progressive rock, a move started with their previous album, Thick as a Brick.
Both albums have the format of continuous music spread over two sides of the original vinyl releases; but with A Passion Play, the music became much more elaborate and complex. Also, while Thick as a Brick has been largely well received critically, A Passion Play was panned by the critics, who soundly thrashed bandleader Ian Anderson for his perceived self-indulgence (i.e., the over-the-top “Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”) and pretentiousness.
Nevertheless, the album sold well, reaching No. 1 on the charts in the US and Canada. It also sold well in Germany, Norway, and the UK. Though I agree that the “Story of the Hare” is little more than outright silly, I feel it’s unfortunate that the album has such a bad rap, for musically it’s among Tull’s most accomplished, with Anderson expanding on his already considerable multi-instrumentalist abilities to include soprano and sopranino saxophones. He does some fine acoustic guitar playing here, too; and John Evan‘s keyboards and Barriemore Barlow‘s virtuosic drumming and percussion add lots of musical colour.
When I bought my copy of the LP as a teen in the 1980s, it didn’t have the gatefold inner sleeve with the lyrics and the drama masks (let alone the six-page programme included in the original album to tell us the characters, etc.). All I had was the outer cover, with the pictures of the ballerinas. As gleaned from just the lyrics, the story is quite unclear.
Indeed, what do they mean by “a passion play”? The story of the album isn’t a dramatization of the suffering and death of Christ, so the title is obviously a metaphor…but of what? Here’s where everything is open to interpretation–so here’s mine.
A “passion play” is a metaphor for life. Instead of Christ, our protagonist, as indicated in the programme, is “Ronnie Pilgrim,” an everyman whose death at the beginning of the story, and whose progress through the judgement of his life, then through heaven and hell, and back to corporeal existence (rebirth), is an ironic cross between passion plays and a variation on John Bunyan‘s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Now, the story is full of Christian imagery, though Jesus is only briefly and occasionally referred to. On the other hand, since passion here has its original meaning of “suffering,” rather than “ardent emotion,” and play refers to life, as in “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players,” then “a passion play” as a metaphor for life means a life full of suffering, which sounds more like the Buddhist concept of dukkha. After all, the first of the Four Noble Truths is that all life is suffering. Furthermore, Pilgrim ends his progress by being reincarnated.
Whether Anderson consciously or unconsciously intended A Passion Play to have a Buddhist subtext hidden under Christian concepts is ultimately irrelevant; my point is that such a subtext can be found in the story.
Another irony is how a story about the suffering of life is mostly presented in the afterlife, causing one to wonder if this “afterlife” is literal or metaphorical. Indeed, how does one go from being accepted into heaven, then opting for hell, and finally coming back to physical life if this is all understood to be literally happening? After all, when entering hell, aren’t we all supposed to “abandon all hope” (i.e., of leaving hell)?
I’d say the Pilgrim’s “death” is really either a coma in which he, dreaming, mistakenly believes he’s dead, and from which he eventually wakes; or, the death, heaven, and hell experiences are just temporary psychological states between incarnations. Whatever the answer may be, let’s dive into the music.
Side One begins with a fade-in during which we hear Evan’s synth imitating a heartbeat. This is mixed with various other instruments, including the organ and Anderson’s sax; it has a trippy, psychedelic quality, suggesting a dream-like state, as if Ronnie Pilgrim is merely imagining the whole story.
Barlow’s drums kick in with the rest of the band, and we hear them playing a brief instrumental fittingly called “Lifebeats.” It has an almost march-like rhythm in triple time, until there’s an interruption in 9/8 (subdivided 2+2+2+3), first played only on organ, then with added acoustic guitar, whistling, and tritones on Martin Barre‘s guitar and Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond‘s bass.
This brief 9/8 passage ends with a ritardando of the synth-heartbeat, which also lowers in pitch, indicating that Pilgrim is dying. A crashing sound then indicates that he is now dead, as Anderson sings, beginning the narration of the predicament of our protagonist. “The Silver Cord,” which ties mortal flesh to the spirit, now “lies on the ground”…and so Pilgrim is dead. Evan’s soft and pretty piano accompanies Anderson’s singing.
Pilgrim sees his friends all attending his funeral, though they’ve arrived too late by taxi. “A hush in the Passion Play” means that death is the silence when life ends.
Pilgrim meditates on the good and bad moments in his life, though the “rich attainments” are “all imagined,” and “sad misdeeds in disarray” seem more prominent. Such is the essence of life as an experience of sorrow, or a “passion play” that we all must go through. To compare the suffering of life (e.g., aging) to music, we could speak of “melodies decaying in sweet dissonance.”
“The Ever-Passion Play,” or eternal life of suffering, with death conceived as an integral part of this eternal experience, suggests the cyclical suffering of samsāra. Since the Passion of Jesus ends with His harrowing of hell (as Pilgrim will do on Side Two) and resurrection, Pilgrim’s ‘resurrection’ could be seen as symbolic of reincarnation.
An instrumental section interrupts the narration, starting with a reprise of that 9/8 tune, now played slower on the organ and with Barlow’s marimba and the tritones on the guitar and bass. After this, a jazzy passage is heard in 11/8 time, featuring a sax solo by Anderson. Then there’s a return to the narration, with Evan’s dainty piano playing.
An angel descends to meet Pilgrim, and “a band of gentlemen” escort him out of Limbo. An instrumental “Re-Assuring Tune” comes next, including an acoustic guitar solo displaying Anderson’s skill on the instrument. This leads to “Memory Bank,” in which we find Pilgrim in “the viewing room,” where he’ll watch video of his entire life. They have him taped; he’s “in the play” of life, which will now be judged.
We’re coming into what is perhaps the most musically tense part of the album, and fittingly so, since this is the moment that determines whether Ronnie Pilgrim will go to heaven or to hell. Still, this issue is resolved with him going to heaven by the end of Side One. Pilgrim’s real issue isn’t whether or not he’ll be saved, but rather if he even likes it in heaven, or if he likes the afterlife in general.
In contrast, the pilgrim of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (the protagonist fittingly named “Christian,” for the purposes of Bunyan’s allegory) has to go through an ordeal of temptations and dangers of being led astray, and therefore he’s in danger of not being saved. Of course, Christian passes all the tests and makes it to the “Celestial City,” or heaven. Ronnie Pilgrim’s “progress” is about contemplating the vey nature of the afterlife, and making up his mind whether it’s worth venturing into at all…or would one rather just stay in this material world.
An instrumental passage in 11/8 leads to a reprise of that jazzy section originally with the sax solo, but this time instead of the sax, we hear the album’s major showcasing of Anderson’s trademark breathy flute soloing. Though there is, of course, lots of flute heard on this album before and after this particular passage (on which Anderson overdubs two solos), since Jethro Tull in general is more or less synonymous with the flute, by Tull standards, A Passion Play has far less of the instrument highlighted.
“Memory Bank” ends with the judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life and noting some of those ‘rich attainments’ of his (“Captain of the cricket team,/Public speaking…” and “a knighthood…”), I must wonder if he really did attain these honours, or were these attainments “all imagined,” as stated above. In any case, this section segues into “Best Friends.”
Apparently, Pilgrim never stopped chatting on the phone with his best friends. Rain coming through a tear in his old umbrella, rain like tears, seems to represent old sorrows of his; still, “the rain only gets in sometimes,” and the sun, which seems to represent his fiery passions, never left him alone, as we’ll judge soon enough.
The next section is the particularly dark, heavy, and tense “Critique Oblique,” which opens with an ostinato of six notes (G, A, B-flat, D, D-flat, and C, each with an inverted parallel fifth below these tonic notes) that starts slowly on the organ and is repeated accelerando. These six notes (and their inverted fifths) will form the basis of the riff for this whole section, backed by Barlow’s pounding drums.
The judges watching the videotape of Pilgrim’s life seem to be judging him here for a sexual indiscretion of his, which has resulted in an illegitimate child. As a comment on this sin, we hear comically melodramatic voices singing an example of the album’s fatuous infatuation with puns: “The examining body examined her body.”
After a judgement of Pilgrim’s moral imperfections, we have one on the limitations of his intelligence. Since life is a passion play, we who live life are the actors, and Pilgrim is one “of the low IQ.” Not only was his sexual indiscretion sinful, but it was also foolish, leaving the illegitimate child’s mother “faded,” that is, her life ruined.
Still, in spite of his errant ways, the judges “won’t cross [him] out.” Pilgrim is loved like a son, or like the Son (John 3:16). Indeed, the only way Pilgrim could be saved is through Christ’s blood on the Cross, because of “how absolutely awful [he] really [is],” awful the way Lucifer is awful, as we’ll learn on Side Two, the way the state of unredeemed sin makes us awful.
In any case, Pilgrim is admitted into heaven, and the blissful state of the celestial paradise is reflected in “Forest Dance No. 1,” which leads to “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles,” ending Side One and beginning Side Two.
It’s curious how “The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles” is sandwiched in between the two ‘Forest Dances’ of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven. As we will discover on Side Two of the album, he becomes disenchanted with heaven when he finds its inhabitants all reminiscing about their lives on Earth rather than simply enjoying eternal life (indeed, at the beginning of “Forest Dance No. 1,” we hear that synth heartbeat of life again).
The story, narrated by Hammond-Hammond in an over-the-top, affected Lancashire accent, seems a mixture of Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf (i.e., the music), Peter Rabbit (i.e., the hare), Winnie-the-Pooh (i.e., the kangaroo and rabbit), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (i.e., not only the rabbit but also the extensive use of puns). As pretentious, self-indulgent, and generally annoying as this story is as an interruption of Pilgrim’s story (I used to skip this part when listening to my LP, and when I taped it, I omitted the story), in a sense it could be considered a fitting inclusion, in that, as a children’s story placed in the middle of Pilgrim’s experience of heaven, it represents how one must be a child to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:17).
The hare losing his spectacles sounds like someone who has lost his vision, lost his way. This is an odd experience to have when in heaven…unless the whole point is that heaven was an illusion from the beginning. We all fantasize about a perfect world that can never be, and in that fantasizing we grow myopic, if not outright blind.
Or perhaps the point is that in heaven, our troubles are only slight. The hare loses his spectacles, yet has a spare pair, so his problem is quickly solved. Heaven is thus perceived as a charming children’s world, with the cute hare, a kangaroo, an owl, a newt, and a bee. (Here is a link to a video dramatizing the story.)
During the course of the story, we hear a number of puns on the animals’ names: “Bee…began,” “Owl…scowling,” “Kangaroo…hopping mad…” and “…can guru,” “Newt knew too…”, and Hare did have a spare pair/A-pair.”
After this nonsense we hear the heavenly “Forest Dance No. 2.”
In “The Foot of Our Stairs,” Pilgrim expresses his astonishment, incredulity, and surprise at how disappointing he finds heaven to be. Instead of enjoying eternal bliss, the saved just remember their old lives on Earth. Apparently, our life here in the physical world, in spite of all its suffering (“a passion play”), is the only life worth having. Indeed, dukkha as the Buddhists understand includes even the mildest of unpleasant feelings, like disillusionment, or the foreknowledge that even the best of parties have to come to an end sooner or later.
Pilgrim, in fact, is so disappointed with heaven that he’s decided, as AC/DC would observe years later, that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” (though he’ll regret his decision soon enough). He tells God that his “is the right to be wrong,” and requests to be sent to the Other Place; for the reward of heaven is just “Pie in the sky.”
Could “Jack rabbit mister” be a link to the hare who lost his spectacles? In any case, “The last hymn is sung, and the Devil cries, ‘More’,” suggesting that the Devil has all the best tunes. What we note in this qualifying of heavenly bliss vs. hellish torment is that the two places aren’t as black and white as we’ve been told; that as in life, there’s a considerable grey area in both heaven and hell, and that ultimately we never really escape suffering as long as we keep existing.
After an instrumental passage with a sax solo, Pilgrim carries on in his qualifying and relativizing of heaven and hell by singing of “that forsaken paradise that calls itself ‘hell’.” Pilgrim’s decision to leave heaven for hell is made all the more ironic with his allusion to Christ’s healing of a paralytic (Mark 2:9) by singing “Pick up thy bed and rise up from your gloom smiling,” since Christ spoke of how much easier it is to forgive sins (i.e., deliver a sinner from hell and admit him into heaven) than it is to cure paralysis.
Anyway, Pilgrim has left heaven and gone to hell, where in “Overseer Overture,” we are given Satan’s perspective, him being “the overseer.” One would expect music depicting the hellish experience to be of the gloomiest, most hopeless and evil sort; oddly, what we get instead is music of a mostly merry sort, with a bouncy rhythm in triplets. There’s even a joining “round the maypole in dance.”
The only exception to this merry tune are two brief, dissonant moments with synthesizer arpeggios and groaning. These appear before the lyrics “Colours I’ve none…” and “Legends were born…” These are the only truly musically infernal moments in this part of the story. These brief moanings put among larger passages of musical merriment reinforce the sense that heaven and hell are not meant to be understood here in the classical, Christian sense of being absolute opposites. Again, I suspect that Pilgrim either hasn’t really died, but is merely mulling over the idea of the afterlife in his mind, or he’s experiencing a temporary, relative heaven and hell before being reincarnated.
So his dissatisfaction with hell is really just like his dissatisfaction with heaven and everything else–all is dukkha.
In “Flight From Lucifer,” the Devil being “an awful fellow” sounds like extreme understatement for describing Satan, once again reinforcing the relativity of hellish torments as felt in Pilgrim’s experience of the place. Though the Devil is “icy,” a reference to Dante‘s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, in which Lucifer is trapped waist-deep in ice, he is called by his original name, Lucifer (“Light-Bringer”), back when he was once held by God to be fairest of the angels before his pride became his infernal undoing.
The musical structure of the louder, more rhythmically pounding verses of this section is interesting in its trickiness. (I refer to the verses beginning with “Flee the icy Lucifer,” “Here’s the everlasting rub” [an allusion to Hamlet, perhaps?], “Twist my right arm in the dark,” “I would gladly be a dog…”, “Pick me up at half past none,”and “Station master rings his bell.”) In the first, third, and fifth of these verses, we have 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 4/4, 5/8, and three bars of 4/4. This pattern happens again in the second, fourth, and sixth of these verses, but instead of the bar in 5/4, it’s one in 6/4, with a pounding of Barlow’s tympani providing the added beat.
In Pilgrim’s regret over coming to hell, he realizes he’s “neither…good nor bad.” He wants to come back to physical existence; it’s “Time for awaking,” or coming back from the sleep of death. He politely says he’d like to stay, but his (angel’s, or devil’s?) “wings have just dropped off.”
Another pounding of the tympani, as well as some organ, fades out and segues into the next section, an instrumental passage called “To Paddington,” on which we hear overdubs of sweet acoustic guitar playing by Anderson in 5/4.
Next comes “Magus Perdé,” with a scratchy, angular electric guitar riff by Barre, including quickly strummed harmonics, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs. Anderson’s flute joins in, along with shaken tambourine from Barlow and Evan’s synth.
Pilgrim, “voyager into life,” wants to come back to the material world. He’s with “The passengers upon the ferry crossing, waiting to be born”; normally, Charon would be taking them in the opposite direction, to Hades. There is an instrumental section in 7/8, then a tricky passage with jumps, starts, and interruptions before a restating of the main guitar riff, and the final verse.
Here, reincarnation is given the metaphor of resurrection. Christ’s in particular is alluded to in “son of man” and “Roll the stone away.” Note that in the Old Testament, “son of man” (ben-‘adam), lacking the definite article, refers to humanity in general; whereas in the New Testament, Christ tends to refer to Himself as “the son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου, or ho huios tou anthropou). So this last verse, while linking reincarnation metaphorically with resurrection, is also linking man in general (and Pilgrim in particular) with Christ.
In the “Epilogue,” we hear a brief reprise of the soft piano melody from Side One and Anderson singing about “the ever-passion play.” The word ever was heard repeatedly in the verses of “Magus Perdé,” namely “ever-dying,” “ever-burning fire,” “ever-door,” “ever-life,” and “ever-day.” In all of these “evers,” we have the eternal sense of recurrent death, pain, and movement through the (as it were) doorway of changing states of life experience, as well as the eternality of existence in the light of day. In this sense, we move away from Christian symbolism to the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth…samsara.
So Pilgrim returns to physical life, and we hear that synth heartbeat again, as well as what would seem, at first, a reprise of the Forest Dance of heaven as heard at the end of Side One, just before “The Story of the Hare.” Both of these sections begin with the “passion play” reprise of the soft piano and Anderson singing “play,” ending the word in falsetto, suggesting a conceptual link between the reprises.
So, coming back into the physical world, despite its suffering, is the closest we’ll ever come to anything like heaven.
Why do people believe in an afterlife? A simple fear of death, which is of course unavoidable, but we feel a yearning for at least some kind of existence afterwards. Belief in hell satisfies our wish for justice against the evildoers of the world, but that belief also carries with it the negative trade-off of a fear that we ourselves may be included among the wrong-doers. The afterlife, as a solace against the fear of death, becomes a cause for an even greater fear of death.
The conclusion of A Passion Play is that we should focus on this material life here, with all of its pain and contradictions (as symbolized in the fadeout of Side Two, with its dissonant, startling organ chords, etc.). Instead of fantasizing about a utopian heaven for our narcissistic selves (as parodied in the absurd “Story of the Hare”) to enjoy, and an infernal concentration camp for those we hate, we should do what we can to improve our material conditions here as best we can.
Instead of admiring and imitating a resurrected Christ who has suffered a passion for us, we should be like the bodhisattvas, who swear off entering into the blissful state of nirvana to return to the physical world and help all of humanity to end suffering. Instead of emulating the passion play of life, one should end the passion of it (i.e., life’s suffering), liberating us all to enjoy the play.