A Passion Play initiated when the band resolved to move to France, in the Château d'Hérouville studios - known in the 70's for being frequented by artists such as Pink Floyd, Elton John and T. Rex. The move was motivated to escape high British tax rates. The original idea was to make a double album, the logical next step from Thick as a Brick. The concepts varied as the meaning of life ("Skating Away"), critics ("Critique Oblique"), and the comparison between the man and animal world ("Animelee" and "Law of the Bungle"). Although enough material was recorded to fill three sides of the intended double album, problems in the studio and discomfort of the band members made Ian Anderson discard the songs and start from scratch.
Little of the material was re-used in A Passion Play, with the notable exception of "Critique Oblique" which was adapted to the new concept. Some of the material would later be used in the War Child album, like "Skating Away" and "Only Solitaire."
Advancing in the progressive rock genre, A Passion Play continues with the whole band playing a multitude of instruments, heavily toned with dominating minor key variation. The spoken word piece "The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles", has its relations in musical terms with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Bruce Eder describes Anderson's singing in biblical-sounding references, interwoven with modern language as a sort of a rock equivalent to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land with the music a "dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms."
A Passion Play borrows its title from a traditional type of play depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ, though the title is evidently ironic, since the album at first appears to present a generically Christian view of the afterlife but then rejects Christian theological conclusions. A Passion Play is described in its album liner notes as though it were a staged theatrical "play" in four acts. Of this album, "the lyrics themselves are extremely complicated, the story is often unclear, and much is left to the individual's interpretation." Knowledge of the characters and setting actually comes less from the music itself and more from the few brief words in the satirical, six-page Linwell Theatre "programme" included in the original album packaging, which names Rena Sanderone (an anagram of "Eean Anderrson") as the author of A Passion Play. A basic narrative plot can be loosely interpreted from the lyrics, liner notes, and "theatre programme" of A Passion Play, centering on everyman protagonist Ronnie Pilgrim, who is named only in the album's programme.
Ronnie Pilgrim recognises his own death and, in ghostly form, attends his own funeral, before traversing a purgatorial desert and "icy wastes", where he is visited by a smiling angel guide (Act 1). Pilgrim is next admitted into a video viewing room by a Peter Dejour, and events of Pilgrim's life are replayed by a projectionist before a demanding jury. After a long-winded and bizarre evaluation process, the sardonic jury concludes that they "won't cross [Pilgrim] out", suggesting that he has led a mostly decent life and so will be admitted into Heaven, which corresponds with the sudden start of a cheerful "Forest Dance" melody (Act 2).
At this time, the main plot is interrupted by an unrelated, spoken-word comedic interlude (narrated by Jeffrey Hammond with an exaggerated Lancashire accent) backed by instrumentation. Presented as an absurd fable, the interlude details (with much wordplay) the failure of a group of anthropomorphic animals to help a hare find his missing eyeglasses.
The "Forest Dance" melody resumes, and Ronnie Pilgrim now appears in Heaven, two days after his judgment at the viewing room, communicating two unexpected thoughts: "I'll go to the foot of our stairs" (an expression of surprise) and "pie in the sky" (an expression of scepticism about the fulfilment of a reward). Pilgrim's dissatisfaction with Heaven appears to be linked to its mundane atmosphere where most of its residents endlessly reminisce, chronically obsessing over the living. Therefore, unable to adapt, Pilgrim goes to G. Oddie & Son to frankly request a relocation to Hell, feeling that he has a "right to be wrong". Descending into Hell, Pilgrim is confronted by Lucifer (named "Lucy" in the album's fictitious programme), who asserts his cold authority as Pilgrim's "overseer" (Act 3). Pilgrim immediately finds Hell even worse than Heaven and flees, understanding himself now as neither completely good nor evil, wishing that he could trade his "halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had". He speaks with a Magus Perdé about his dilemma and, having sampled and rejected both extremes of his afterlife options, he finally stands on a Stygian shore as a "voyager into life". On this beach, other people and animals also prepare to "renew the pledge of life's long song". The final triumphant lyrics include the phrases "ever-burning fire", "ever-door", "ever-life", and moving "from the dark into ever-day", so that the play concludes with a strong implication of eternal rebirth (Act 4).
Upon its original release, it received generally negative reviews. Rolling Stone was very harsh, saying that the album was "a pop potpourri of Paradise Lost and Winnie The Pooh, among many other literary resources, not to mention a vast array of musical ideas derivative of influences as far-flung as Purcell, flamenco and modern jazz", with the final judge of the album as an "expensive, tedious nonsense" piece of music. New Musical Express considered the album as "the fall" of Jethro Tull. Even Chris Welch of Melody Maker had a bad impression, stating "Music must touch the soul. A Passion Play rattles with emptiness". Lester Bangs, writing for Creem Magazine, stated that he became "totally bamboozled" after hearing the album. Bangs concluded: "I almost like it, even though it sort of irritates me. Maybe I like it because it irritates me. But that's my problem". The later three star review of Bruce Eder from AllMusic were a little lighter in the judgement, saying that "the music puts it over successfully, a dazzling mix of old English folk and classical material, reshaped in electric rock terms. The band is at its peak form, sustaining the tension and anticipation of this album-length piece across 45 minutes, although the music runs out of inspiration about five minutes before it actually ends".
Despite the reviews, A Passion Play sold well enough to reach No. 1 on the charts in the United States and Canada. The album also had good sales in Germany and Norway, where it reached No. 5. In the United Kingdom it reached only No. 13. The 2013 box A Passion Play: an Extended Performance achieved the Nº 48 in the Top Rock Albums.
A Passion Play was included in the list The 100 Greatest Prog Albums of All Time by ProgMagazine at number 49.
A low point occurred when Jethro Tull's business manager, Terry Ellis, announced in Melody Maker that the band would retire from live performances in response to negative reviews of the album and concerts. This was just a publicity stunt of which the band had no knowledge; Anderson felt it made them look petulant and brought them the wrong sort of publicity.
Subsequent to the original 1973 release, the album was released on CD. Later, in March 1998 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab released a CD, which indexed tracks along the lines of, but not quite matching, the radio-station promo (see below) and in 2003 a remastered CD version with an additional video track was released.
On the original release of the album, as well as the original CD release, side one of the album ends in the middle of "The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles". The sound at the end of side one was a nod to children storytelling records which signaled the child or parent to flip the record over. Side two begins where it left off. However, on the 2003 remastered CD, the second part begins with the full story so that it does not get cut off in the middle.
In 2014, commemorating the 40th anniversary (slightly belated) of the album, it was released a box called A Passion Play: An Extended Performance, which contains the complete Chateau d’Herouville sessions and brand-new mix by Steven Wilson. The DVDs also include the video clips of stage intro film and "The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles". The discs are packaged in a box set along with a book featuring interviews with Wilson, dancer Jane Eve, spun man Chris Amson, plus the memoirs of the Reverend Godfrey Pilchard.
The Chateau D’Isaster tapes were only offered to public in the 1988 compilation 20 Years of Jethro Tull and in the 1993 compilation Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters 1973–1991, the last one with almost all the recordings with additional flute solos by Ian Anderson.
The full recordings were released only in 2013, in the box A Passion Play: An Extended Performance. The box contains previously unreleased tracks such as "Sailor" and "The Big Top" along with the aforementioned "Skating Away" and "Critique Oblique".
These titles were provided by Anderson for the 1973 DJ pressing of the LP, though they were not included for the standard pressing. The gold Ultradisc Original Master Recording CD of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (1998) contains cueable tracks for each title, but the standard CD releases contain only one or two tracks, depending on the version.
All songs written by Anderson unless stated otherwise.Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson – flute, acoustic guitar, soprano and sopranino saxophones, vocals
Martin Barre – electric guitars
John Evan – piano, organ, synthesisers, vocals
Jeffrey Hammond – bass guitar; narrator on "The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles"
Barriemore Barlow – drums, timpani, glockenspiel, marimba
David Palmer – orchestral arrangements
Robin Black – sound engineer
Terry Ellis – producer
Brian Ward – photography