John’s solo releases are a fascinating look inside an artist at a particular time and space in his life. I think it’s hard for some listeners to hear and connect with an artist’s personal outlook, demos and all, if that outlook doesn’t relate or seems out of touch with their sensibilities. John’s solo albums fall into that pit.
1. Plastic Ono Band – December 1970 – John was undergoing primal scream therapy and the work reflects it. The songs are raw and emotional, stripped to basics, and deeply personal. Starting with Mother, a heart wrenching plea of John’s inner child lamenting his Mother’s early death and his father’s abandonment. Working Class Hero’s lyrics of society and its expected results of us is as relevant today as then. Love is a beautiful song to the aspects of romantic love as a physical manifestation. The work God takes his therapy and throws down the gauntlet to kings and kingmakers, including himself. It is one of Lennon’s greatest vocals on one of rock’s seminal albums. POB gets better with age as we look back on the end of the Sixties’ dream, but at solo Lennon on a tightrope without a net.
2. Imagine – September 1971 – You cannot escape the title cut, Imagine has become the world’s anthem. It is ubiquitous and deservedly so, but the album is pretty damn good, too. John was still in the process of discovering who he was post-Beatles, but unlike POB, Imagine is a gentler journey. Not to say he was beyond petty foibles, listen to How Do You Sleep, his send-off to Paul McCartney for a perceived slight from Paul’s solo album, Ram. Therapy wasn’t softening his strong jealous streak either. John always professed that jealousy was the biggest motivator of his art, but in typical John fashion, he takes that trait and writes one his greatest songs, the lush and lovely Jealous Guy. The Imagine album was an embrace, not only to the public, most of who thought POB cold and harsh, but an embracing of John himself. He was accepting the Beatles as past and looking forward to John.
3. Some Time In New York City – June 1972 – The less said about this album the better. It is a perfect snapshot of the time, John was caught up in New York’s radical political movement. It was a short lasting fling and the quality of the songs reflect it. It is John’s greatest stumble, a big, bold, ass-over-teacups stumble. The only shining moment was the Chuck Berryish cut, New York City. Que pasa New York?
4. Mind Games – November 1973 – Mind Games would hopefully take away some of the grime of the New York fiasco from our ears, but it only washed some of it away. John was reeling from his very first commercial and critical failure and the continuing crumbling of his marriage to Yoko. Mind Games’ title cut was a minor hit and over the years has grown in stature but the album as a whole contains some of Lennon’s most limpid writing. The exceptions being the title cut, One Day At A Time, Only People and the beautiful Out Of The Blue. Mind Games is a work of an artist who for the first time in his career faces a deep look inside his creative well and sees it draining.
5. Walls And Bridges – November 1974 – I won’t go into the whole Lost Weekend era of John’s life, but the Yoko-less months of debauchery did produce a welcome back to statis work from John. WAB is a good album, lavishly produced with confident songwriting and vocals. Its snapshot is of an artist finding his footing, emerging from a cloud of self inflicted smoke and haze while pining for his true love. The album is not bitter though, it is as life affirming as John has ever been up to this point. It contains his only number 1 hit, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, but the masterwork here is #9 Dream.
6. Rock N Roll – February 1975- Recorded between Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, Rock N Roll was a contract resolution recording and it shows. Produced by the ever-mad Phil Spector and using the best LA musicians, the album is a mish mash of old rock covers played without any heart or urgency. John gives it his best vocally but the whole retro vibe falls flat, fun but flat. He was years ahead of the rockabilly renaissance but he missed the midnight train. The album remains a inconsequential member of the Lennon Canon. Slippin’ And Slidin‘ is the best of the lot.
7. Double Fantasy – November 1980 – The sad irony of the album was the great happiness and joy surrounding its release and the murdering of its creator only a month later. After a 5 year self-imposed absence John returned with songs of domestic bliss, fatherhood, love and hope. He was happy, really happy for the first time in his life and the art sings it. Starting Over signals his arrival with an Elvis wink, Woman wraps Yoko and all women in a fabric of love and respect, Beautiful Boy is a lullaby to his son and fatherhood while Watching The Wheels accounts to the naysayers and the critics that there is more to life than art, there is life. Douuble Fantasy won the Grammy in 1981 as Best Album. It deserved the award on its own right, as I grow older its songs have become part of the litany of adulthood, being a husband and fatherhood. There is grace in there somewhere, I just haven’t figured out where yet. (Note: The original release and even the remastered CD are really hard to find, what is readily available is the “stripped down” remastered version released in 2010)
8. Milk And Honey – November 1984 – A release of produced demos and songs recorded during and after the Double Fantasy sessions. The songs continue John’s winning streak of happy introspection but with a little more salt, as in Nobody Told Me and I’m Stepping Out. The ironic and poignant Borrowed Time is hard to listen to but remains a beautiful tune. Grow Old With Me was John’s last masterpiece. A touching love letter to enduring love not only for our partners, our family and friends, but our relationship with John. Grow Old With Me deserves the pinnacle of Imagine, I doubt that it will ever reach that, it may be too precious and personal for that mass ritual. It is a fitting close to John Lennon’s work, career and life.