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Yoko Ono - Warzone Music Album Reviews

An endurance of idealism threads together these 13 reimagined protest songs, collected from four decades of albums. But their tempered presentation reveals a profound generational disconnect.

“People of America, when will we learn?” Yoko Ono asked over a briskly strummed acoustic guitar on her 1973 album, Approximately Infinite Universe. “It’s now or never: There’s no time to lose.” She sings those same words on Warzone, a collection of 13 songs from her back catalog that she re-recorded with their original lyrics and somber new synthesizer underpinnings. It’s been 45 years since she first urged her adoptive home to dream of a reality unblighted by violence. The words ring sadder now; the people of the United States ostensibly chose “never.”

A ferocious optimism animates Ono’s half-century career. Her early performance pieces and her 1964 book of creative prompts, Grapefruit, worked from the assumption that art was play, an inborn human faculty. She carried that humanism into the music she made, on her own and with husband John Lennon, throughout the 1970s. Impassioned, erratic vocals tore at long-held conventions of what women behind microphones should sound like. Her liberating irreverence reverberated throughout New Wave in bands like the B-52s and the Talking Heads, as well as underground experimentalists like Meredith Monk. That her legacy as a creative force was so deeply subsumed by the myth of the Beatles speaks to a slowly lifting rockist misogyny, not the quality of her work.

Warzone collects a handful of songs from Ono’s seminal ’70s records alongside tracks from 1985’s Starpeace and 1995’s Rising, plus an interlude from 2009’s Between My Head and the Sky. Most songs tell the same story: Humanity will one day achieve enlightenment and relinquish war in favor of love and unity. The unity of the message speaks to the endurance of the Ono’s idealism. While the original recordings offer a glimpse at the sheer variety of Ono’s discography—her work houses dub beats and thrash metal riffs and acid freakouts—the re-recorded versions drain each track of historical and musical specificity. Most have been slowed to a funereal tempo, which makes lyrics that once brimmed with hope sound like a concession to the ubiquitous cruelty of the present. Ono sings a 20th-century dream for a 21st-century utopia that never came to pass.

When Ono strangled the word “why” during the 1970 song of the same name, she pronounced the question like it had an answer that she could find if she screamed hard enough. She was spurring herself into action. But the 2018 “Why” loses the original’s rock instrumentation and shelves Ono’s feral vibrato. Instead, over wolf howls, trumpeting elephants, and ambient synthesizers, she wails the word as if in mourning. One “Why” looks out onto a course that has yet to be set; the other looks back onto irreversible wreckage.

“Woman Power,” from 1973’s Feeling the Space, loses its sense of spontaneous play. Roaring electric guitars and a commanding drumbeat once gave the track urgency, as if Ono really were singing on the cusp of gender liberation, as if she could sing it into being. The re-recorded take might be the track here closest to its source material, as the guitar riff and drum pattern survive for the song’s first half. But the instruments hide under Ono’s voice; rather than raw and vital, they sound spectral and faded. They soon fall away entirely, replaced by strings arranged by New York composer Nico Muhly. When the band crashes back in and guitarist Marc Ribot tears through a rote solo, it feels as though two visions of the future are competing: one in which women have already seized the power afforded to men, and one in which Ono mourns that power’s lack.

Warzone’s liner notes include a 1972 essay by Ono originally published in The New York Times. “The Feminization of Society” articulates an enduring tenet of feminism: that masculinist ideals have failed the world, and only by means of feminine survival strategies can the world be saved. She argues that women cannot compromise their liberation or achieve it within existing masculine frameworks. Women must rewrite reality by force. Some of Ono’s writing has aged well. On the other hand, she flippantly claims that black people have already achieved liberation and women must do the same, at once seemingly forgetting the existence of black women and glossing over the United States’ enduring racism. A year later, she’d release an album with Lennon that printed a racist slur on its cover. On “I Love All of Me,” originally released on Starpeace, she again uses black people as a rhetorical peg, claiming, “I’m a black man who’s come to terms with his anger.” A line no doubt meant as a bid for compassion undermines her vision of universal love, conflating black masculinity with anger without interrogating that association’s roots in white supremacy.

These moments pin Ono’s radicalism to a vision of liberation that ignores the way racism and misogyny structure the world in tandem. They feel dated and draining in a political climate where a majority of white women voted for a candidate serially accused of sexual assault, opting to safeguard the benefits of whiteness by aligning themselves with a violently misogynist party. That Ono never thought to rewrite these lyrics or the included essay while rearranging the songs themselves highlights a disconnect between the hippie utopianism of the 20th century and the current bitter fight for survival of so many.

Because its overt politics now feel so inadequate, Warzone works best as a melancholy gesture, a long look back at a time when dreaming of a better world felt invigorating rather than exhausting. Its peak comes on its last track: a recording of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Nearly a decade after releasing the song, Lennon admitted that Ono deserved partial songwriting credit, because he had penned the lyrics around one of Grapefruit’s prompts. Here, Ono reclaims a song long offered as proof of her late husband’s towering genius.

Ono works against its engraved expectations. Her rendition is melancholy and moving; she sings tentatively against sparse electronic drone, as if reckoning with the weight of all that has been lost in the decades since Lennon sang the same words. She strains a little to hit the high notes before the chorus, the playful vocal flourish so idiosyncratic to the late Beatle. Her voice considers his absence as she pronounces some of his most famous lines: “You may say that I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one.” She’s right, of course, and the world she envisions here—no possessions, no nations, no want—still describes the world young radicals are fighting for against late capitalism’s heavy inertia. It’s a beautiful idea, this paradise of which she sings. It just takes more than dreams to get there.


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