Monday, February 2, 2009

John Lennon 9: Double Fantasy

History is a funny thing. Certain events have different resonance in hindsight than they might have on initial impact. Such is the case with Double Fantasy; we would venture most people didn’t get to hear this album until after John was dead, by which time he’d been elevated to messianic status. But in those short weeks (in hindsight) between the announcement that John was recording and the first single, the anticipation was unbearable. What would he sound like after five long, silent years? And did we really want to hear what Yoko had to say?
“(Just Like) Starting Over” was big news on its very first radio airplay; it’s good old rock ‘n roll, with just enough affection to make it obvious it’s for Yoko. The flip, “Kiss Kiss Kiss”, features Yoko yelling about something for two minutes, then we have two Yokos climaxing in stereo. The rest of the album continues in this pseudo-dialogue fashion. They kept telling the press how the album was a testimony to their love, but when you really look at the lyrics it’s apparent that living in the Dakota wasn’t the same as living in Utopia. “Clean Up Time” helps with the househusband mythology, plus it’s a kick to have the Lewis Carroll references back after all those years. “Give Me Something”, like most of Yoko’s tunes on this LP, dates back to the Lost Weekend; this one is mercifully short, but displays her influence on punk bands, which some think is a good thing. “I’m Losing You” is incredibly real and aching; this is the one that got the FM exposure after the softer rock of the first singles. It segues neatly into Yoko’s harsh “I’m Moving On” response; this pairing makes you look again at the cover photo where the kiss seems so genuine—almost as genuine as the love song to Sean in “Beautiful Boy”. The steel drums are a nice echo of Bermuda, where it was written. And the waves take us away.
Side two starts with “Watching The Wheels”, with its jaunty piano. There’s a slight air of melancholy while John’s telling us how happy he’s been “no longer riding on the merry-go-round.” There’s an audio-verité stroll into “I’m Your Angel”, which would have been mostly harmless had it not been “Makin’ Whoopee” with different lyrics. “Woman” was a perfect choice for the next single, chiming guitars and all. The harmonies at the end are sublime, and it’s not at all confined to his experience. “Beautiful Boys” (notice Yoko’s title is in the plural) is a scary little number, most likely written as a response to John’s other song. While “Starting Over” echoed Roy Orbison, “Dear Yoko” has a Buddy Holly hiccup that’s blindsided by the obsessive lyrics. The universality of “Woman” unfortunately hasn’t translated here. The song is essential to the story, but ineffective and downright embarrassing as a song to the point where the last two songs, both Yoko’s, are superior.
Upon release, Double Fantasy was nice to have, and certainly not awful, but just pleasant in the same way as Mind Games was. At the time, we assumed there would be lots more now that John was back, so we were willing to wait. At the time, life was different. But life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. The album’s place in history is chained to the events soon after its release, so unfortunately this was his epitaph. Would he have wanted us to think these were the last thoughts on his mind? We’ll never know.
In time other songs from the sessions would be revealed, which will be discussed in the proper context. But time has only reinforced the album’s status as his last living musical statement, and one that gets more attention today than it might have otherwise. As one of the first of the new remasters, the 2000 CD adds Yoko’s “Walking On Thin Ice” as mixed on December 8, a piano demo of John’s “Help Me To Help Myself” and some audio called “Central Park Stroll”, which only reinforces the feelings of futility and finality. Then, in time for what would have been his 70th birthday, Yoko authorized an expanded set called Double Fantasy Stripped Down, which paired the original fourteen tracks with a drastically remixed version of the same songs to emphasize his voice. Some studio banter makes it more of an interesting listen, but Yoko’s songs also get the same treatment, so buyer beware.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono Double Fantasy (1980)—
2000 reissue: same as 1980, plus 3 extra tracks
2010 Stripped Down version: same as 1980, plus 14 extra tracks

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