John called this album “‘Working Class Hero’ with sugar on it” in response to those who found it “nicer” (read: “better”) than the previous year’s stark and harsh Plastic Ono Band. The most overt difference between the two is simply the production, or more specifically, the strings. Overall he’s just as angry at the world on Imagine, and just as insecure about his identity.
The title track sets the tone for the rest of the album right away, and despite its radio saturation, it remains a lovely song to this day. (And he’s not saying there’s no heaven, he’s just suggesting we think about it. He probably knew just how hypocritical it was for a guy in a huge house on a large tract of land to sing about having no possessions. His next abode was a studio apartment in Greenwich Village, if that helps.) “Crippled Inside” is a jaunty little number, complete with George on dobro and good old Nicky Hopkins on piano. “Jealous Guy” is one of his best; the words, the melody, the sentiment all speak to the hopeless romantic in all of us. “It’s So Hard” isn’t that exciting, but it is short. (It was also a B-side, suggesting that even John knew it wasn’t much.) “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” was everyone’s least favorite, but its hypnosis can be appealing if given a chance. Phil Spector gets to go all out on the production here, considering what he wasn’t allowed to do on the previous album.
“Gimme Some Truth” is another great example of how John could put seemingly nonsense words together successfully. It’s a good one for shouting along with your fist in the air. “Oh My Love” conjures images of overcast days walking through the woods. Written with Yoko back in ‘68 with different lyrics, this finished version has a lot more going for it, with the guitar arpeggios, gentle piano and finger cymbals. The subject matter notwithstanding, “How Do You Sleep?” is yet another example of how nasty John could get if poked (in this case, by Paul). The strings are sinister, matched by the guitar and electric piano solos (George and Nicky again). This is followed by the tail-between-the-legs “How?” The melody in particular does a nice job of juxtaposing rises and falls, and it could have easily fit onto the previous album. And possibly the best album closer of his or anyone’s career could still be “Oh Yoko!”, such a happy, stupid song you have to smile, as if that harmonica is still playing somewhere for eternity.
Imagine is John at his most commercial without being stuck in its time. With it he had set another standard that he’d chase for the rest of his life. It’s still incredibly honest, pulling no punches and suffering no fools. His solo career was off to great start; besides, Yoko was recording lots of stuff to be released under her own name, so those of us who just wanted to hear his songs were more than happy. But as he’d point out, he wasn’t in it to make us happy.
The album avoided expansion for quite some time, until Yoko picked 2018 as the year to unleash Imagine—The Ultimate Collection. At its most extravagant level, alongside a pricey coffee table book, the set presented four discs celebrating not only the album itself but everything else John released in 1971, including “Power To The People”, “Happy Xmas”, both sides of the Oz magazine charity single, and the in-studio cover of “Well”, months before he performed it with the Mothers. The so-called “ultimate mixes” give the tracks a little wider aural space, while “elements mixes” isolate certain aspects of the final tracks, such as the strings or Nicky Hopkins’ piano. “Raw studio takes” present each track before overdubs of horns, strings, or reverb. A variety of outtakes show the songs under construction; with “Oh Yoko!” being tackled in one take, it’s represented by a Bed-In era demo. Finally, “evolution mixes” present montages of each track’s development, from initial demo where applicable to final touches, with conversation, interview excerpts, and lots of impatient swearing. (Two Blu-ray discs offer all that, in 5.1 surround, plus two more hours’ worth of other outtakes, elements, and evolutions, and the quad mix.) All in all, a nice set, though the many variations on “God Save Us” and “Do The Oz” are torturous. And we can marvel that he spent all that time and effort installing a state-of-the-art studio in his home, only to use it for one album before leaving the country for good and selling the house to Ringo.
John Lennon Imagine (1971)—4½