[Work: Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson, 1972]
It May Make You Feel:

Analyzing Lyrics in Jethro Tull’s Concept Album Thick as a Brick—Unserious Joke or Serious Art?

 

Introduction:

Photo of Jethro Tull by Cornet Benoit - Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson - ironic, sincere, lyrics, analysis

Photo by Cornet Benoit

I know what you’re thinking: “What is an article about a progressive rock album doing in this book blog series?” Well, as you could probably tell from how it has featured poetry and plays in the past, this is not a book blog series; it’s a literary analysis and review series. And in any situation where poetry, which most would feel very comfortable labeling as literature, is a candidate for study—songwriting is eligible as well. Now, on to the topic at hand.

Fans of musicians like Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and Arlo Guthrie are no doubt familiar with songs stretching above the ten-minute mark. And fans of bands like The Who, Rush, and Pink Floyd are familiar with entire albums built around one narrative or theme. But fans of Jethro Tull’s fifth album, Thick as a Brick, are automatically familiar with both.

This strange album from 1972 contains just one album-length song, also called “Thick as a Brick,” which was cut into two parts that filled both sides of the record on which it was originally distributed. But even when ignoring the song’s gargantuan duration, Thick as a Brick is an odd album; it was produced with the intention of poking fun at the pretentiousness of the long, thematic, narrative format of music (often called concept albums), and especially of progressive rock, which it also is.

This makes the album a prime example of parody which is seemingly undercut by the album’s success, with many missing the mockery and the album masquerading as a sincere expression for most listeners for decades. Much like how there are people like Nabra Nelson that see the novel Brave New World as a utopia rather than a dystopia, an artist’s intention might be distant from how people ultimately interpret or accept their art. Thick as a Brick even hit the number one spot on the American, Canadian, and Australian charts shortly after its release. But after all, is the song really just one big joke, or are people right to be taking it so seriously?

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[Work: Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson, 1972]
It May Make You Feel:

Analyzing Lyrics in Jethro Tull’s Concept Album Thick as a Brick—Unserious Joke or Serious Art?

was last modified: March 28th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1606]
Music be the Food of Madness:

Repetition, Rhythm, and Passion in Act II Scene iv of Shakespeare’s King Lear

 

William Shakespeare Sketch by M.R.P. - King Lear Act II Scene iv - Act 2 Scene 4 - repetition, meter, speech, analysis

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.

Introduction:

The mental disintegration of Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear is marked, in much of Lear’s dialogue from the play’s latter three acts, by madness interspersed with moments of lucidity. Yet, just before that madness becomes dominant, one can see a pivotal moment in the dramatic action at once figuring and presaging Lear’s breakdown by examining the final scene of the play’s second act.

More particularly, this pivot can be witnessed by paying close attention to the portion of Act II Scene iv which features Lear’s last speech prior to his passionate invocation of the storm on the heath. This speech, delivered in response to the final stripping of his attendant knights by Goneril and Regan, showcases a Lear concerned with dignity, identity, and sanity.

Rather than madness interspersed with lucidity, this speech comes across instead as lucidity tinged with madness. A motion can be traced from logic toward passion and from sanity toward madness via attention to the speech’s employment of poetic techniques.

While grief encroaches on the logical concerns and addresses of the speech’s content, the precise metrical and musical constructions of Shakespeare (much like the constructions of Robert Browning that I have previously covered in this series) reflect the motion of the content—both in the moments when Lear is in total control of his faculties, as well as when he feels his mental control slipping.

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[Work: King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1606]
Music be the Food of Madness:

Repetition, Rhythm, and Passion in Act II Scene iv of Shakespeare’s King Lear

was last modified: February 19th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980]
Peopling Picaresque:

On the Well-drawn Characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

 

Introduction:

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole sketch by M.R.P. - characters, picaresque

Sketch by M.R.P.

The publishing history of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a morose one to recount. In 1969, at the age of 31—after struggling for years with anxiety, paranoia, and depression, which were in turn catalyzed by the successive rejections of his works for publication by notable figures in the publishing business—Toole ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into an unventilated cabin, killing himself. Eleven years after his death, in 1980, Toole’s novel was published after his mother shared it with writer and enthusiastic reader Walker Percy. In time, it became an international success, and A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously won John Kennedy Toole the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

I mention all of this not merely to set the scene and sow sadness, but to establish the proper context for today’s topic: the development and embodiment of unique characters in Toole’s novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is a work of picaresque fiction, meaning that it follows the wayward exploits of a singular or iconoclastic protagonist as they attempt to navigate a variety of societal strata and scenarios. Toole was himself a singular person: a gifted scholar, a witty presence, and a troubled mind; and as a result, his protagonist is perfectly drawn for his project, while all of the other characters that Toole created are equally vibrant.

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[Work: A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980]
Peopling Picaresque:

On the Well-drawn Characters of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

was last modified: January 9th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather, 1927]
Personal Ethics and the Old West:

The Unique Form and Common Values of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

 

Willa Cather - Death Comes for the Archbishop - ethics, Old West, CatholicIntroduction:

One of the first books covered in this series was one of my favorites: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. And, as I said in relation to Wells’ Moreau in that earlier article, it is the case that even if today’s book, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa CatherDeath Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather - ethics, Old West, Catholic, were not well-written enough to be worthwhile throughout (which, also like Wells’ novel, it fortunately is), it would still be worth reading so as to provide context for its extremely insightful and satisfying ending. But that said, I would like to set the ending aside and encourage you to check out this curious piece of semi-biographical historical fiction.

Death Comes for the Archbishop so stretches the boundaries of conventional plot development that its status as a novel is widely debated. Willa Cather herself preferred to refer to it as a narrative rather than a novel. Rather than a series of events which build to a climax, the text is comprised of nine small vignette-esque sections (and a prologue) which present periods of time and experiences that are thematically interrelated.

All nine sections cover portions of the life of Bishop Jean Marie Latour, the novel’s protagonist. Bishop Latour is a reserved, efficient, handsome Catholic official. In accordance with the will of the Cardinals, Latour is removed from his post in Sandusky, Ohio and sent to take charge of the parish of the New Mexico territories, (then) recently annexed by the United States, and build up a diocese there.

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[Work: Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather, 1927]
Personal Ethics and the Old West:

The Unique Form and Common Values of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop

was last modified: July 23rd, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski

[Work: Men and Women, Robert Browning, 1855]
A Soliloquy of Browning’s:

Art, Time, and Commodity in Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”

 

Introduction:

Portrait of Robert Browning by Thomas B. Read - A Toccata of Galuppi's - art, time, death, commodity

Portrait of Robert Browning by Thomas Buchanan Read

Before returning to a consideration of a novel next week, I would like to once more (as I did in the last article’s analysis of two-centuries-old anti-slavery poetry) carefully examine a classic poem. In this case, it will be the poem “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” from (originally) the 1855 collection Men and Women by Robert Browning, who is known for pieces of poetry with a distinct narrative voice (such that his poems can be read as dramatic monologues). “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” is about art and death and beautiful music, and the analysis below is considerably lengthy, but I hope you will grant me the time.

An attention to artifice suffuses the act of invention whereby Robert Browning’s poems proceed from deeply characterized speakers. This attention to artifice necessarily involves a consideration of the relation between that which is artificial and that which is actual—a relation that can be understood as the more general form of which the relation between art and life is a particular form.

In his poem, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the relationship between art and life becomes a subject of direct address for both the speaker of the poem and the performance represented by the poem itself. The poem expresses a view of art as a permanent representation of impermanent life. For those who consume the art, it becomes a reminder of the ephemerality of pleasure and life even as it discourses on a particular subject or aspect of life, and even as it operates in a tone far afield from melancholy.

Further, the act of consuming art, Browning’s speaker contends, is an economic act wherein time is traded for participation, contributing to life’s aforementioned brevity. Browning’s poem seamlessly blends a dramatic consideration of art as an inadequate-because-eternal approximation of human life with an evaluation of the grim commodification of art as a temporal purchase. Through this combination, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” reflects on the inadequacy of art to quell anxieties about mortality.

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[Work: Men and Women, Robert Browning, 1855]
A Soliloquy of Browning’s:

Art, Time, and Commodity in Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”

was last modified: June 15th, 2016 by Daniel Podgorski