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Friday, August 17, 2018

John Lennon: Walls And Bridges


1) Going Down On Love; 2) Whatever Gets You Thru The Night; 3) Old Dirt Road; 4) What You Got; 5) Bless You; 6) Scared; 7) #9 Dream; 8) Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox); 9) Steel And Glass; 10) Beef Jerky; 11) Nobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out); 12) Ya Ya.

General verdict: Dreams, fears, complaints, rants, melancholy, ironic party swirl — this album has a bit of everything, even if not all the experiments are equally successful.

This album is sometimes hailed as a «comeback» for John — largely because it got him the best critical reviews since Imagine — but the word «comeback» feels a little strange now that we know that in less than a year, John would disappear off the radars of the musical world for half a decade anyway. It certainly feels strange to me personally, since I do not think that the overall quality of this material is that much stronger than it was on Mind Games. The only difference is that this time around, the sessions find John deeply entrenched in one of his personal crises, as he continues to deal with his US status issues, general depression, alcohol, and lack of Yoko by his side (who, apparently, could not be replaced by the collective presence of May Pang, Harry Nils­son, Ringo, and Keith Moon — all of them nice guys in their own right, but could any of them hammer a nail into a wooden board with that much class?).

The difference is pretty substantial: it is hardly possible that such great songs as ʽScaredʼ and ʽNobody Loves Youʼ could have been written by John prior to his drunken binges in LA clubs. But I have always insisted that a calm, peaceful, and self-assured Lennon could be just as honest and touching in his songwriting as a perturbed and hysterical Lennon — you just have to approach Plastic Ono Band and Double Fantasy with different goals in mind. Obviously, Walls And Bridges comes closer to the first one in attitude, although, due to John's life circumstances, it has to walk this thin line between personal agony and party spirit now — although it soon becomes clear that both are just two sides of the same coin anyway.

ʽScaredʼ is a particular standout here, perhaps the single most underrated song in John's catalog: not too surprising, since there was never any idea of releasing it as a single, and the sentiments expressed in it are such a far cry from the candy, the political propaganda, or the easy-access guruism of his biggest hits that popularity is not an option. Nevertheless, it is a perfect mood piece: from the opening wolf howl and down to the well-coordinated musical howl of the guitars, pianos, and brass, it is a chilling midnight confession — one that you normally reserve for your own inner self, too afraid to open it up to anybody else. Nobody who has ever lived through a midlife crisis could stay totally indifferent to this music or these words. And it is only recently that I actually noticed how the verse / chorus pair is structured like a dialog between John A and John B, or, perhaps, John and the Devil, the latter telling him about how "you don't need to worry / in heaven or hell / just dance to the music / you do it so well, well, well" (with a self-reference to ʽWell, Well, Wellʼ, I'm sure!).

Most importantly, the arrangement perfectly fits John's mood, and this is a general thing about the album — he has assembled a more dedicated team of players here than he had for Mind Games, including blues guitar king Jesse Ed Davies, Bobby Keys on sax, and Nicky Hopkins back on the piano (though the latter is not featured too often, but I think that any experienced listener will immediately recognize his style on ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ and ʽNobody Loves Youʼ). With Harry Nilsson and Elton John as additional collaborators, this is his strongest backing outfit since Imagine, and one that can equally well indulge in a party atmosphere as it can pile up the spookiness or hit upon heavy romance. Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of Walls & Bridges is all the diversity — it seems as if John was intentionally experimenting with genres here, getting funky, folksy, or glammy at will, which is actually pretty impressive considering how thoroughly wasted he himself and much of his entourage must have been at the time. (Actually, not so much: apparently, Lennon harshly restricted life's pleasures to the West Coast — once the musicians got to New York from LA to make the record, there was discipline all around).

This diversity is best illustrated with the two big hits from the record that are equally glorious, but could not be more apart from each other. ʽWhatever Gets You Thru The Nightʼ is probably the most perfect collaboration there could ever be between two Johns: Elton lends it his sense of unabashed, wild-riding rock'n'roll glamor, and Lennon corrects it with his snarky sense of humor. It is pure frantic vaudeville, a track that speeds along at such a speed that it is barely possible to even dance to it — nothing like a «Lennon goes disco», as some grumblers had it (the rhythmic patterns are jazzy rather than funky), but a spluttering, dizzy, controlled-chaotic mess of guitars, pianos, and saxes, with each band member striving to out-energize the rest, though Elton and Bobby Keys are clearly in the lead. The atmosphere is as close to glam as John ever got, but the vocal delivery is clearly sarcastic — both Johns are poking so much fun at the party attitudes that it is a wonder how the song never explodes into bursts of uncontrolled belly-laughs.

But if ʽWhatever Gets You Thru The Nightʼ is easily the whirligiggiest party anthem that John ever (co-)wrote, then ʽ#9 Dreamʼ is one of the most gorgeously psychedelic soundscapes he ever created — almost on par with ʽLucy In The Skyʼ and the like, though, perhaps, not as strictly unconventionally magical as the former. The idea was to bring forth a musical reproduction of one of John's actual dreams, and with a little studio trickery on the string arrangements, Nicky Hopkins' electric piano, and Jesse Ed Davies' wah-wah guitar intro, that goal is achieved — in fact, I would definitely call this a quintessential early precursor of the dream-pop genre; the only previous song in John's catalog that approaches this atmosphere is ʽAcross The Universeʼ, but that one had a very sharp, tangible guitar sound that still brought it down to earth, whereas on ʽ#9 Dreamʼ everything, from rhythm section to vocals, comes to you in a foggy haze. Throw in a catchy vocal melody, the sexiest whispers of "John, John" imaginable (actually, May Pang does a better job with this than Yoko), and an incomprehensible mantra for the refrain — and the whole thing sticks out as perfect proof that even in his mid-life crisis, John was capable of gorgeous abstract artistry, equally removed from his political agenda and personal problems. It also shows that, despite having openly renounced and rejected his Beatle-days psychedelic games, that particular strain within him was still alive and aching to break through — too bad that most of the time, he was actively suppressing it in favor of «realism».

Walls And Bridges does not, however, begin and end with the hits. I have already singled out ʽScaredʼ as the underdog highlight, but this should not diminish the importance of ʽSteel And Glassʼ — John at the top of his vicious emploi, tearing into an unnamed victim (reportedly it was Allen Klein, but that knowledge is unnecessary if you want to arm yourself with the song in order to vent your feelings against some son of a bitch or other) with fangs, claws, and occasionally breathtaking up-the-scale string buildups. This should not obscure the soulseeking brilliance of ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ, co-written with Nilsson (who also sings harmonies) and graced with the trade­mark piano touch of Nicky Hopkins, somewhat making it into ʽJealous Guy, Pt. 2ʼ, a little less catchy but, arguably, a little more deep. (Nicky's glissando after the "cool... clear... water" inter­mission is actually one of the most unforgettable short passages in John's solo catalog for me). And this should not conceal the deeply depressed introspection of ʽNobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out)ʼ, which takes the classic premise of Jimmy Cox's ʽNobody Knows Youʼ and updates it for a different kind of situations — unlike professional bluesmen, John Lennon would find it weird to sing about lack of money, so he makes a grim prediction instead: "Nobody loves you when you're old and grey... Everybody loves you when you're six foot in the ground".

There are a few relative clunkers, of course: ʽWhat You Gotʼ is a heavy funk-rocker that could have worked better without John overscreaming it; ʽBless Youʼ is a nice atmospheric ballad that is too slow and lethargic compared to the quiet, but cathartic piano turbulence of ʽOld Dirt Roadʼ; nobody remembers much about the short pop-rocker ʽSurprise, Surpriseʼ (a rather lackluster ode to May Pang) or about the quasi-R&B instrumental ʽBeef Jerkyʼ; and while it is adorable to hear Julian Lennon trying to keep the drum rhythm on the brief snippet of ʽYa Yaʼ, that closing track is more of a special family signal than a suitably de-pompifying coda to the album. (The brooding heaviness of ʽNobody Loves Youʼ might call for a ʽHer Majestyʼ-style anti-finale, but the father-son ʽYa Yaʼ isn't even particularly funny — although I am still tempted to call it the single greatest Julian Lennon performance on record ever).

But even the clunkers contribute to the album's impressive level of diversity, and even clear throwaways such as ʽBeef Jerkyʼ still possess Lennon's unorthodox style — like, what genre is that song? It's like part-time Shadows, part-time Stevie Wonder, and part-time subconsciously Paul McCartney's ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ (whose riff is partially borrowed for the bridge section). I could not say that I like it, particularly, but I respect the odd corners into which Lennon's jam spirit could lead him every now and then, as opposed to the straight and predictable roads trodden by the majority of professional blues / rock / R&B genre specialists.

In the end, Walls And Bridges is just another good and honest solo Lennon album, with the added benefit of shitty times' experience to help the songwriting and of a great company of musical friends to help with the arrangements (there is a certain naked charm to hearing the same songs in their raw versions on Menlove Ave. and other archival releases, but I am deeply impres­sed by the finished product all the same). And, for those of you to whom this is important — it is the only solo Lennon album without any input from or explicit mention of Yoko, even if his longing for her does permeate several of the songs. Ultimately, the record is more about walls than it is about bridges, and this is good, because John is always at his most convincing when he is staying behind a wall rather than crossing a bridge.


  1. As someone who immensely disliked Lennon's post-Beatle artistic direction, I found this album to be far and away his best since leaving the Fab Four. The two hits are glorious, and songs like "Going Down on Love" and "Nobody Loves You" aren't bad either. It helps that there's no Yoko and, by extension, Lennon avoids his mostly banal political preaching, but I'd also add that his rediscovered interests in creating interesting, polished melodies and textures is equally as important. Although not consistent enough to be a masterpiece, it's at least willing to be something more than an underdeveloped collection of political statements (and reinforcing my belief that his earlier solo pieces were more creative misfires than signs of a decline in talent).

    1. My friend, I totally disagree. Plastic Ono Band and Imagine are two masterpieces. But W&B is just a good album. Lyrics are brilliant as usual. #9 Dream is beautiful and Steel and Glass is classic John. But the rest is too much mid 70s funky arrangements. As if all his collaborators were more responsible for the music than John himself. John Lennon, one of the most (or the most) significant artist from the 60s and first 70s now is following the trends rather than innovating and being an influencer.

  2. In my opinion, the previous one is just as good as this one. I have to say, however, that I was expecting you to have realized by now that "Going Down On Love" is a major highlight.

    1. Always loved "Going Down on Love" as a kid, especially the "Somebody please, please help me.
      You know I'm drowning in the sea of hatred" part. It's one of John's underrated compositions.

  3. The first Lennon solo album I ever heard, and thus one that will always hold a special spot for me, but this review is pretty much dead-on with how I think about the record today.

    (Also: "Beef Jerky" is a complete rewrite of "Soul Finger", no?)