Monday, November 29, 2010

Top 25 Albums #20. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - John Lennon

People make music for various reasons, but whether they're playing synth-pop, Delta blues, heavy metal, or polka, there's a good chance that those musicians are engaging in some form of catharsis. That release of feeling through music is an amazing thing; it can start parties and lift spirits or, alternatively, it can stomp listeners down into the earth and instill great loads of sadness. John Lennon's solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, succeeds at the latter. I believe that there are different stages of understanding John Lennon. First, you may simply see him as one of the four Beatles, the world's greatest rock band. Next, you start to appreciate him as an individual, maybe adopting "Imagine" as a personal favorite, unaware of its weary irony and strong socialist posturing. You think he's a genius, a demigod, a champion of peace, a "dreamer", an expander of minds, a veritable saint. Then, as more facts are revealed to you, you're view is soured; he was an asshole, he was a hypocrite, he broke up the Beatles. Finally, you understand him as well as you, a stranger to a dead man, can. He was a realist, not an idealist. He was anti-bullshit but he sometimes partook in bullshit (like most of us). He was anti-class. He wasn't entirely peaceful, but rather quite angry and anxious. He was also a brilliant singer, songwriter, and musician. He was funny and very clever, and he loved his wife vehemently, and he was an utterly interesting guy. The real John Lennon--not the hippie icon, not the heartless prick, not the saint-- is this album. The devastated, painfully sober ex-Beatle begins the album with "Mother", which introduces us to the record's minimal instrumentation and sees Lennon confronting the dark side of his childhood, particularly the death of his, you guessed it, mother. In a stroke of genius, Lennon included primal screaming at the song's close, which he had practiced after the breakup of the Beatles as a form of therapy. The following track is "Hold On", my favorite on the album. Perfect, dreamlike, bittersweet guitar parallels the vocal melody, in which the singer rhymes "Hold on" with the third-person "John", later asking the world to do the same. He also rasps, "COOKIE", which is hilarious. In "Working Class Hero", Lennon pisses all over England's crushing class and educational systems, saying, "They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool" and later, "you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." This was some bold shit 40 years ago. Really it's the singing and the lyrics that pack the emotional punch on this record, but I wouldn't overlook the melancholic piano on "Isolation" or Klaus Voorman's fantastic bass playing during "Remember"'s "Don't feel sooooorry" line. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band isn't all screaming and cursing and wallowing; "Love", in as simple a lyric as possible, quietly celebrates man's greatest gift and most powerful emotion. The album's penultimate track, "God", is its greatest (although my personal favorite remains "Hold On"). It is a man stripping away deities, falsities, nations, ideologies, superstitions, saviors, and even what was for a long time his own religion--rock & roll ("I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman. I don't believe in Beatles..."), until all that's left is a man and his wife, standing stark naked, hand in hand. "I was the Walrus, but now I'm John" is one of the saddest fucking things I've ever heard. The record ends with the aching "My Mummy's Dead", just to make sure there's no chance of you coming away from it all without at least a couple pints of blood pouring out of your heart. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a landmark in confessional singing and songwriting, and one of the most brutally sincere tear-jerkers ever put to wax.

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