Imagine (Capitol 24858)
I'll be the first to admit that, as a critic, I am no better than a loudmouth class clown who makes fun of the teacher until the teacher actually walks into the room. I've spent an inordinate amount of time throwing all manner of nastiness down about people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, usually in an attempt to reassess them apart from prevailing critical opinion. I really don't like to play up "classic" albums just on the basis that they've been around forever and everyone loves 'em; I try to listen to them for what they mean now, delineating which albums are ones I actively listen to and ones that mostly line the shelves.
In the case of McCartney, my bile is reserved for his truly miserable moments, and I always have a great dose of respect for the man and an obvious love for his music, or else why would I even care so much? In the case of Lennon, who, unlike McCartney, has had the benefit of tremendous critical acceptance all the way down the line, I am increasingly disillusioned with both the man and the music. I legitimately feel that Yoko Ono was the better artist, and that Lennon's best moments were usually ripped off what Yoko was doing at the same time.
Like, John's Plastic Ono Band is a phenomenal album, but it's nowhere near as hip as Yoko's Plastic Ono Band. And I don't know what I'd say to Yoko if she, like the teacher, walked into the classroom as I spouted off about how overrated her dead husband is.
Imagine has just been reissued in a totally new mix and remastering job, with a considerably improved booklet and much better packaging overall. The sound is crystal-clear and amazing, renewing my call for the Beatles albums and the solo Beatles albums to be remastered again for the new CD era. My old Imagine was a longtime shelf-liner, but the new one is fresh and will get some real play.
I haven't listened to this album in years. I've always argued that it's one of only two good solo records Lennon ever made, and I fully concur with that estimation upon revisiting it. I see it as a natural extension of Plastic Ono Band, and they go together in a very complementary way. That one is fierce, deeply personal, even cathartic; this one is pretty, more general in scope, and outward-looking. Lennon's warring sides (the calm, mellow balladeer and the rabble-rousing rocker), are in a cage match on this one.
I believe that Lennon, at heart, was probably a bigger sap than McCartney, but really struggled with the whole macho balls-out electric guitar thing. He's definitely at his best on tracks like "Oh My Love" (as pretty and honest as you could want; one of his very best) and the still-powerful "Jealous Guy," justifiably one of Lennon's most beloved songs. My favorite track on here is easily "Oh Yoko!," which closes the album and is just marvelous, containing the best playing on the album (and probably the simplest) and his best singing on here. It's a wonder of a song that I can listen to again and again and again, and I don't even mind the harmonica (see my graduate thesis, 5,000 Reasons Why I Hate the Harmonica). A perfect performance.
"Imagine," the song, is hard for me to even hear, it's like listening to "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong (that wasn't meant as a good thing). Sure it's a great song, but I feel a little goofy listening to it with 200 other CDs sitting on my desk that I haven't heard eighty billion times.
Lennon's rage is still working itself out on this album. The therapy of Plastic Ono Band was tremendous, but he's still lashing out. "Crippled Inside" has some truly arch lyrics ("Well you know that your cat has nine lives, babe/Nine lives to itself/But you only got one/And a dog's life ain't fun"), though as a song it's wonderful, a country stomper featuring Beatle George on dobro. If anyone was crippled inside, it was Lennon, a fact that probably was not lost on himself.
And the hostility unleashed in "How Do You Sleep?" (the most notorious of the "John vs. Paul" songs) really seems like jealousy ultimately, Paul and John probably most wanted the others' approval, if not to actually be the other. But lines like "The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you've gone you're just another day" or "The sound you make is Muzak to my ears" are just juvenile. I mean, "Yesterday" and "Another Day" are both terrific songs, and what's more, look in your own closet, Mr. "Steel and Glass" or "Luck of the Irish." Truly, Lennon must have had a lot of frustration with his own output, which was never as prolific, effortless, or popular as Paul's. And what's more, I'd rather listen to any Muzak than any bit of The Wedding Album or Walls and Bridges.
The heavy blues-rock of "It's So Hard," "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" and "Gimme Some Truth" gives the album its edge they're great Lennon songs, though the swagger rings a little false. "How?" is like a sequel to "Isolation" and is always wonderful to hear. He's so much more honest on stuff like that: "How can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied?"
All that said, purely on a musical basis Imagine is a great album by any measure. The musicians are outstanding (Alan White and Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Harrison on guitar on several cuts, King Curtis on sax), and Lennon is in prime form. I just get hung up on Lennon as a person, and all the anger in his music that comes out in some pretty hypocritical ways.
Yes, I rated Wild Life by Wings the same as Imagine. They both succeed to about the same level, though they're doing vastly different things. Lennon puts a lot on the table here, and it doesn't all work. In many ways he was more defensively protected in a persona than McCartney was. Yeah, Paul made "Silly Love Songs," but isn't that what he was about? Lennon strove for a lot of ideals he himself couldn't nearly get to. No, that alone doesn't make the album less great unless you think about it enough.
It's cool that this has been reissued, giving me the inclination to re-explore and face the challenge that is Imagine. It's not an album as deep and brilliant as it thinks it is, but I like to think that Lennon, were he still alive, would be able to see if for what it is. Unlike Uncle Paul, who seems to stop people on the street to remind them he made Sgt. Pepper.
Review by Red-Red Richards