John Lennon is one of my favorite figures in rock and roll. I love the Beatles (mostly once they started to get away from their beginning straightforward sound, but even their early pop material is good), and John Lennon always wrote the songs I liked best, and although he was fairly extreme in his politics, I love his radicalism and his attempts to make a change. (Posting giant posters in eleven cities reading "War is over if you want it" is pretty great.) It's a serious pity that his solo career is fairly hit-and-miss, and, of course, that he was murdered in 1980 with much of his life left to lead.
In the twelve years John made solo albums (or duet albums with Yoko Ono), he covered a lot of ground. He started with three highly experimental albums with Ono (released while still a Beatle) which are of somewhat limited interest. Then came Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, two fairly different albums but easily his two best – and two of my favorite albums. Then came the political Some Time in New York, the decent Mind Games, the mediocre Walls and Bridges, the predictable covers album Rock 'n' Roll, and, after a five year break, the decent Double Fantasy and the posthumous Milk and Honey. I could write reviews for most of these albums (and some day probably will), but for now I'd like to discuss the last Lennon album I purchased (with good reason). This also works out since I haven't really written a single negative review yet.
Artist: John Lennon (with the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, Little Big Horns, and the Philharmonic Orchestrange)
Album: Walls and Bridges
Released: 4 October 1974 (reissued 2005)
Producer: John Lennon
01. Going Down on Love
02. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night
03. Old Dirt Road
04. What You Got
05. Bless You
07. #9 Dream
08. Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)
09. Steel and Glass
10. Beef Jerky
11. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)
12. Ya Ya [Lee Dorsey cover]
Reissue bonus tracks:
13. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night [Live 1974.11.28 in New York City with the Elton John band]
14. Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out) [Alternate acoustic version]
15. Interview with Bob Mercer
Walls and Bridges was written and recorded during Lennon's "lost weekend", an 18-month block of time in which he separated from Yoko. This shows significantly, since it is one of the few Lennon releases without any input from Yoko, and some of the songs are clearly about missing her. In Yoko's absence, though, are Harry Nilsson, who cowrote "Old Dirt Road", and Elton John, who plays the piano and sings harmony on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night", Lennon's only #1 single (during his lifetime). The former isn't really all that of a great song, unfortunately, and the former is good but just feels so hedonistic.
I think a big problem with the album is that it sounds so wrapped up in a stereotypical 70s pop sound. Many of the same elements can be heard in other Lennon albums, but it is rarely so bland, obvious, and uninteresting as it is here. The structures are too easy, very little of the material rocks, the sweet strings and horns are fairly clichéd, and the musicianship isn't really outstanding. I do like Klaus Voorman's basslines in many places, and Elton's piano work is great, but beyond that, talent is lacking. Most of the arrangements are just too predictable, too: too many (like "Old Dirt Road" and "Surprise, Surprise") just use the same guitar, piano, string, and horn sounds to get obvious pop material. The drums are always really straightforward and largely go unnoticed.
It's easy to see how this album was recorded during a "lost weekend" – it lacks direction and feels like no one was there to tell Lennon that some of his ideas needed work. "What You Got" rocks okay, but the screamed vocal seems kind of weird for him. "Bless You" is incredibly slow and spaced out, and it just doesn't work. It sounds like bad elevator music – nothing stands out at all. "Beef Jerky", Lennon's only instrumental release, isn't anything that great, and the short cover of "Ya Ya" with off-beat drums by his son Julian is at best cute, but ultimately just not good. (The complete, actually produced version on Rock 'n' Roll is still not that great, but maybe I just don't like the song.)
I should, however, admit that I do really like two of the songs: "#9 Dream" and "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)". "#9 Dream" is a very dream-like, strings-laden song, but I really like it – maybe because it is so ethereal yet still moves along, unlike the horribly downtempo "Bless You". The lyrics parallel the music – the chorus uses made-up words and the rest is about dreaming, magic, and spirit dances. "Nobody Loves You" is a mostly acoustic song that's fairly simple but gets across a dark theme of selfishness (although there's still a few lines about love slipped in). As the song progresses, the arrangement widens to include a full band, but the instrumentation is appropriate and works. It's a fairly dramatic song, but something about it makes it work and stand above the rest. (Apparently the album was originally envisioned as something more of a Dylanesque acoustic album, but things changed for the worse, especially considering how much the folkier Rubber Soul rules.)
There's also "Scared", which is also a somewhat harrowing song, but the arrangement works against it in some ways. The lyrics are pretty rough: "Every day of my life / I just manage to survive". (Oddly, it ends in a Dylan reference: "No place to call my own / Like a rollin' stone".) Most of the album seems to balance frustrations with life against a frustration with love. "Going Down on Love" does just that, while "Bless You" is clearly a statement of eternal love for Yoko, and "Surprise, Surprise" seems to be about his temporary lover in Yoko's absence, May Pang. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" seems on the other side of the scale, trading off lines like "Whatever gets you through your life / it's alright, it's alright" with "Don't need a sword to cut through flowers / oh no, oh no".
The bonus tracks aren't anything revelatory. The live version of "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" by Lennon and the Elton John band is interesting by nature but not much different than the studio version. It was Lennon's last public performance, which makes it special, but it would have been nice to have included the other two songs performed that night with that line-up ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There"), although neither of those renditions are all that great either. The alternate acoustic version of "Nobody Love You" is also basically the same, but unadorned by other instruments. The interview at the end is just Lennon saying that EMI should promote the album because it's good. Considering that other material exists (like the (posthumous outtakes compilation) Menlove Ave. songs "Here We Go Again" and "Rock & Roll People") there should be no reason to include the fairly boring interview. (The reissue does have good sound and liner notes, but they changed the cover... weird.)
When it comes down to it, this album can only stand as a disappointment. There are a few good cuts, but much of the album is just plain not good. I'm sure no one ever really knew what to expect with Lennon, but there could be so much more here – the potential is mind-blowing, and it's largely wasted. Truly sad.
Score: D (convenient: "D" for "disappointment".)
Postscript: It's a pity that the recent Lennon reissue campaign has left several songs in limbo: "Instant Karma!", "Cold Turkey", and "Give Peace a Chance" (three of his biggest and best singles!) are not found on any album and are only available on compilations. (I firmly believe that reissue campaigns should strive to have an organized way of including all the released (and the best unreleased) material by an artist or band) without the overlap caused by best-of/singles compilations.) "Move over Ms. L.", the b-side to "Stand by Me", is unavailable except on one of the compilations. If you want only the good songs from this album, you're out of luck, since "Nobody Loves You" is only available here and nowhere else.