A sort of a disclaimer here: I’ve known Yoko Ono for many years, or at least had the pleasure of interviewing her several times, as I have her son Sean. I like both of them very much. I’ve checked them out on different levels, tried to cut through any of the potential typical self-self-self-hyping showbiz bullshit or what have you, and they passed the tests with flying colors. They are real people, with good hearts and minds. (You’ll just have to trust me on that.) Thus my understanding of and sympathy for Yoko Ono colors my critical soul a little bit, I don’t mind saying it. I want to approve and feel enthusiasm about her music; this means I’m open to it. And I do feel that Ono’s latest and, one hopes, not final record,Warzone — a collection of 13 songs from her past work, spanning 1970-2009 — is the best album of her career. It is deep, and moving, unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time, and perhaps never have heard before.
These are old songs dusted off and reimagined in minimalist ways to exhibit their high relevance in 2018, a year of profound turmoil. This album is among other things quite sad. It’s also subtly humorous, poppy peppy, sugary melodious, and brutal. Amid what the Brazilians would term the saudade or bittersweet wistfulness of several of these tracks, though, we never hear regret, not exactly.
Is this the way things are going to be? She asks the question in multiple ways. The title track starts with audio collage bringing “sounds of war” atop jangling prepared piano tones. “Wake up!” Ono hollers. She calls for no more “high-minded talk.” She and her sound field are harsh, grim. There’s no assured speech of peace ‘n’ love here, though somehow the musical tones/textures/voice plead; those tones are bleak, they’re dull gray, muddied green-browns and black; quick flairs of sonic red and orange are not life-affirming within the context of this declaration of emergency. Things are bad. Look around you.
Still, with Yoko Ono, things, life, it can never be all bad; there can always be a shade of hope. But we do have to wake up. Interestingly, Ono here sounds as if she’s been pushed too far, close to the edge; there’s for the first time something that sounds in that voice like weariness, not quite despair, but pessimism, fear, even.
Hell in Paradise
The extraordinary bare-bones arrangements throughout the album — akin to John Cale’s audacious production artistry on Nico’s The Marble Index — are in full muddied flower on “Hell in Paradise,” Yoko adrift in afterworldly choirs and distantly placed sound ornaments like shards of music. She piles on the bleak assessments: “We’re all stoned or pacified…hypnotized by idolatry/sanitized/jeopardized/penalized…” This, she adds, is as opposed to what we could have: “intuition…transition…inspiration.” In “Why” there are bird calls as Yoko vocalizes in tune with nature (versus the why of it all). The distant conglomeration of drones, sounds, is alluring, but it’s not quite a friendly beckoning.
If there is anything resonantly great about Yoko Ono it’s how so utterly direct she is in her communications, though her words are so often strewn among vast fields of arcane or complex non-vocal sonority; the juxtaposition of the plain-spoken lyrics and more “difficult” musical tones produces a magical sphere of vibrating ineffability. This track is drenched in cathedral synth-string chords for extra apocryphal effect, though it’s not melodramatic; the reason for that is the quality of her voice (not necessarily her words), which is rather fragile; its peculiar political strength comes, too, precisely from its emanation in a heavily Japanese-accented English — she does not care to straighten that out, one must take it as it is.
This indirect directness is most affecting in the folk-poppy “Now or Never”: How are we going to be remembered? Are we going to keep driving our children insane? There is no time to lose. Such sentiments are old-fashioned, timeless, and this simple musical setting, drizzled or scented with synths/e-keyboards, is appropriate for Ono’s dares/sermons, the kind that ask us to ask a lot of questions, as in Talmudic teaching. It is addressed to “the people of America.”
None dare call it “strident,” not anymore. In her redux of “Woman Power,” Ono speaks of “2000 years of tyranny” over noisy rock guitar riffage, heavy bass and bashing drums; she’s painting in ferocious colors, a suitably hairshirt approach designed to make one and all more than a bit uncomfortable. Yet remember, or realize, that Yoko Ono has always been a very funny woman (you’d have had to pay attention), so it’s a proportioning of things when she mentions in her direct address to men that “We’ll teach you how to cook, we’ll teach you how to knit” and other useful skills in the real world. Yoko deals in contrasts, always: “It’s Gonna Rain”’s sweet, lullabye-ish electric-piano clashes with her complaint that she wanted a bowl of cherries, but we gave her a bowl of piss. “Don’t crush my cherries.” Driving motorik beats, twining synths and friendly distortion make “Children Power” lighter, frisky, like a Saturday-morning cartoon in a parallel and possibly better world. “I Love All of Me” is light, sweet, wistful; in it Ono refers to her own “martydom” thusly: “The cross we carry is so heavy / do you mind if I sit down?” She overviews her life, again, in the 22-seconds-long “I’m Alive”: “It’s me / I’m alive / …Mama?” Whereas the final track is, yes, a cover of Lennon/Ono’s “Imagine.” Over somber, sustained electric-keyboard points and lines, the familiar message becomes urgent, as if to say, “Imagine the consequences.”
In a track called “Where Do Where Go From Here?,” set against straightforward, acoustic piano-laced music, Ono’s pointed raps reveal themselves as plaints, and the effect is poignant. Yoko Ono’s greatest gift might be this: Her music is brushed with the cold-ass cerebral avant-garde, but she herself has a tremendous power to sway the heart. She only asks that you open yourself to her…Strike that — at this point she’s saying take it or leave it.
Where Do Where Go From Here?
Why does Yoko Ono persist? Because she can. She is, after all, offering to do something good for the world. Her album Warzone loves humanity. Ono says that it is, strange though it may seem, a good time for us all — a good time to grow together. To unify, for the good of us all.
I seem to be taking all the traditional anti-Yoko Ono spurning scorn more personally these days. It’s just so MAGA, all this cockeyed racism/sexism/xenophobia rolled up in a big, ugly, stupid American ball. My anticipation of all the pinheaded howls of derision that will again greet this record makes me mad, and sad.
That’s primarily because I love Yoko Ono. Also, her relationship with her son, and his love and pride for her, touches me deeply. So you can take all my musical/political/social analysis of her art with a large grain of salt. I will say that Yoko Ono is an artistic giant who has earned our respect and admiration. Equally I want to hammer home that Yoko Ono — she just wants to be — never deserved the contempt, the hatred, that she has endured all these many years. It’s not hard to imagine that, in her perhaps most human moments, all this abuse hurt her to the marrow of her bones.
John Payne writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat; he is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, spring 2019).