The dirty little secret about this record – if it’s even a secret – is that it was a failure when it first came out: it got bad reviews and it didn’t sell very well. People can write all they want about how it was John Lennon’s return after being a dad, or what have you. But the truth is that it wasn’t greeted well. And then he died. And everything changed. Even all these years later I can’t help but wonder how much the about-face in reaction to this record on account of Lennon’s murder explains why people think this is a good album.
For the most part, it alternates between Lennon and Ono songs, as you might expect from a collaboration between the two of them. Lennon’s songs are melodically superior to Ono’s and Ono’s are more musically interesting than Lennon’s. Again, as you would expect. Lennon’s are most consistent. Again, this is all expected. But Lennon’s songs often recall another time, something he was fond of doing in his solo career. “Starting Over”, for example, has a chorus that feels like it was stolen from a song from the late ’50s or early ’60s. (I can’t place the song.) Lennon had already been doing this for some time – arguably his entire career save for 1966-69 – but here it actually fits in with the trend: so much mainstream pop rock around this time was recalling another era and feeding into nostalgia. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but at least he was ahead of the trend?
The whole thing is behind a veneer of modernity, though. There are contemporary keyboards and there are funky vibes and stuff. It’s not super convincing, personally, but nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it’s presented as something else. (And specially when there’s emotional added emotional resonance.)
It sure feels like Ono never performs on Lennon’s songs and I think I only hear Lennon’s voice on one Ono song. (It looks like Lennon might have played guitar songs, or whatever.) I find that weird but it’s a pretty common thing for these dual artist albums. I’d be more interested in something more collaborative, personally.
So much ink has been spilled on what these songs are about but I have a hard time caring. Lennon has written better songs – including better songs about Ono – and Ono is more fun, to me, when she’s off on her own. I find the whole thing pretty underwhelming. And I think the initial reaction to the record – that it wasn’t very good, comeback or not – is a lot more honest than the subsequent critical and commercial success that occurred after his murder. Sure, there’s the odd successful moment, but I have a really hard time imaging actually wanting to listen to this album just because.