Thursday, October 8, 2009

JOHN LENNON: Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon - John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band
Plastic Ono Band is hailed by adherents as a powerful masterpiece but this album’s emotional punch depends entirely on the listener’s investment in the person of John Lennon.

The ex-Beatle’s direct, confrontational lyrics (delivered in a "seething fury" or a "wounded coo", depending on which emotional extreme he wishes to telegraph at the moment) offer litte beyond bland fodder for celeb-obsessed voyeurism, like peeking into the naughty diary of a big star who, as it turns out, is less than compelling. When he branches out beyond his own wounded psyche to discuss religion (“God”) or socio-economic stratification (“Working Class Hero”) he is unable to match his incredible vanity with any real insight, instead settling for watered-down Marxist slogans and self-deification.

Sometimes this kind of auto-bio-pop is compelling in a car-wreck kind of way. Kanye West’s entire career, for example, can be seen as an inadvertent concept piece about a materialistic narcissist whose irrational persecution complex gradually gives way to budding self-awareness. Kanye, however, despite
his best efforts, is unburdened by the kind of naive hero-worship poured over Lennon’s grave by Boomer sycophants. Like Lennon, West believes that a recording contract is a suitable substitute for a basic understanding of political and cultural issues, but his delusion is his own. The John Lennon mythology hangs over every note of Plastic Ono Band like an ugly VH1 albatross.

It’s a real shame, too, because there are some nice ideas here, even if Lennon and producer Phil Spector (working against his usual modus operandi to make the album as self-consciously “raw” as possible) don’t exactly now what to do with them. "God" has an aching repetition that doesn’t require a detailed arrangement, “Isolation” has a clever chord structure, and “Mother” would be a wistful, enjoyable ballad without the screaming theatrics and pathetic post-mortem pleas for parental affection.

All of those good moments are squandered. The only way to purely enjoy this album would be to listen to it with no knowledge of who John Lennon is or what he inexplicably means to people. For me, however, such a blissfully objective listen is impossible. I grew up fully immersed in Baby Boomer mythology, a mythology I would eventually renounce as shallow, revisionist nonsense. I can never really enjoy this album as much as I would like to, because it is impossible for me to separate it from the life of the auteur.

1 comment:

Suckapunch said...

I can't disagree more with the first paragraph. Ironically, all the way through the end it seems as if it's the writer and no one else who can't hear the music separately from the myth of "John Lennon" - he even seems bitter about it.

I don't completely disagree with some of the particular criticisms of the record or denouncing the baby boomer mythology as shallow nonsense, but are you reviewing an album, or a generation & culture?

I first heard this record when I was 9 years old in the 80s. I'm not a baby boomer, I didn't understand the context or history of the recording, and yet it still struck a chord with me.