Sunday, August 12, 2018
Yoko Ono: Between My Head and the Sky (2009)
After John Lennon's death, Yoko Ono released three albums in quick succession: her masterpiece Season of Glass (1981), then the slick, new wave-influenced It's Alright (I See Rainbows) (1982), and in 1984 the collaboration with her husband that had been in progress at the time of his murder, Milk and Honey. Afterward her work became more sporadic: the anti-Regan conceptual record Starpeace, and ten years later the alt rock-flavored Rising; then finally, for Capitol Records, the mostly ignored Blueprint for a Sunrise (2001). Everything else was a packaging of older, unreleased material (A Story) or a remix record (Yes, I'm a Witch) until Ono's son, producer-performer Sean Lennon, elected to reactivate the Plastic Ono Band name and take a new, modern approach to Ono's recent compositions for his own Chimera Music label. Between My Head and the Sky, the first result of the new arrangement, feels like a new beginning, or at least a new run of ideas, for Ono. For the first time, it seems as if music has transformed itself to meet her ideas rather than the other way around, and for the first time since the early 1980s, she here presents a completely successful and well-executed album: not part of a musical, not an art piece of some sort, a forward-thinking, avant garde-leaning rock record that, were it released by someone fifty or more years younger, would have been hailed as a riveting new voice.
Sean's clever approach is essentially not to apologize for his mother's music, but also to give it the audience it fully deserves by really engaging with it in production and performance terms. "Waiting for the D Train" is both a pure, searing guitar workout and a direct fuck-you to anyone who tunes in and immediately decides they don't like Ono's voice. He immediately nods to Ono's enormous club audience with "The Sun Is Down," with its "Born Under Punches"-like synth line, and defies you not to hear accessibility, excitement, enrichment in what she's doing. Ono goes to town on both songs, but clearly the rejuvenation is in this astoundingly perfect sonic home she's suddenly been given: you wonder why it's taken so long for somebody to record her properly again. And then, not wishing to dominate, Sean gives Ono the entire stage for one of her best songs ever, "Ask the Elephant," a philosophical and adventurous, and infinitely charming, Q&A session that effortlessly parades the great artist's open-armed freethinking. It's as if the years since Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe have evaporated, or -- as brilliant as those albums are -- as if they never happened in the first place, for even the scant evidences of apology and bids for commercialism on Universe, or the evidence of her collaborators on Fly and Plastic Ono Band, aren't here: on this record everything revolves around Yoko Ono's own sensibility and skill set, and if it's less confrontational than Fly, that's only because the music is moving with her even more proficiently.
Talking of confrontation, though, this is one, but not in the way one expects if one isn't familiar with Ono's previous music -- and that seems to be the primary audience she and Lennon have in mind, even if the record's also a pleasure for those of us who find riches in her catalog. The confrontation is her age, and the fact that it fails to stop her from proceeding with unflagged energy. The confrontation is her very presence, and that her music requires no accommodation -- that, in some sense, she was right from the beginning and that her art has now obviously proven itself ahead of its time. But "confrontation" still seems like a rude word for such great thrills as are on offer here. Several of the songs Ono wrote for the project are ballads and atmospheric pieces, albeit striking ones, but when it snaps back into gear it really commands the attention: "Hashire Hashire" brings the funk like nothing on Double Fantasy ever could. The title track, filled with her delightful grunting (her vocals throughout the record are uncompromised, ageless, brilliant), is a bass-driven fuzzed-out Led Zeppelin idea taken to a sublime conclusion no lumbering classic rock group could allow. "Watching the Rain" starts out with what seem to be keyboard effects inspired by a Pong arcade before falling into one of the most ambitious and lovely songs in her catalog, and one that fully demonstrates the awe-inspiring efficiency of her collaboration with her son -- the song becomes rain, becomes the moment she wishes to explain and capture.
After everything settles, there are still shards of the past: the hypnotic piano on "Higa Noboru" evoking "Mrs. Lennon," the abstract, Fly-like "Moving Mountains," and the unbroken optimism and acceptance of "I'm Going Away Smiling" and "Ask the Elephant!", the hints of despair and grief that come through in Ono's harder-edged vocal performances. The surreal thing is, unlike nearly everyone else who was releasing records in the '70s, Ono's music's "past" and "future" seem like a continuum -- her work hasn't become less ambitious or risky with time, it has simply become more refined and focused. In this third act of her career, she can only be declared an international treasure -- yet there's no reason to give this any kind of allowances for her legendary status. It's a record that bubbles over with youth and excitement. And while "rock & roll" once seemed so reductive a descriptor for her unclassifiable, genuinely innovative work, it now seems like the only word for it... because it's a medium that has, as John Lennon predicted, expanded to incorporate her and her immense influence. But has it "caught up" with her? Of course not. Never.