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Yoko Ono: Warzone review – name another 85-year-old making music this combative

Yoko Ono: Warzone review â€" name another 85-year-old making music this combative

Alexis Petridis's album of the week Music Yoko Ono: Warzone review â€" name another 85-year-old making music this combative 3 / 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars.

(Chimera Music)
Ono rages through an album that is part rehabilitation of 1985’s Starpeace, part call to arms â€" and wholly unique

It’s not easy listening, but it’s incredibly potent … Yoko Ono
It’s not easy listening, but it’s incredibly potent … Yoko Ono

Plenty of artists have taken to revisiting their back catalogue recently â€" from Echo and the Bunnymen to ELO â€" but i n the case of Yoko Ono, it fits with a wider pattern in her career. She has spent a significant portion of the last decade curating her own musical legacy in a climate far more accepting of her work than the one in which most of it was made. She has overseen reissues of her 1970s oeuvre and put together two volumes of Yes, I’m a Witch, a remix collection that, from its title down, carried a rather appealing hint of screw-you triumphalism. It corralled an impressive array of left-field artists - Tune-Yards, Peaches, Le Tigre and Cat Power among them â€" to pay homage. You could tell from the cast list that no one was there because they were Beatles obsessives looking for the glow of association by proxy. They turned out because they viewed Ono as a significant and impressively fearless artist.

Yoko Ono: Warzone album artwork. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Yoko Ono: Warzone album artwork. Photograph: Chimera Music

But if Yes, I’m a Witch was about acceptance â€" parading the fact that John Lennon’s unwavering belief his partner’s music would have its day had been proved right â€" then Warzone is a noticeably more difficult and combative beast. Reworkings of what you might euphemistically call Ono’s big hits are absent. There’s no Walking on Thin Ice, nothing from 1981’s Season of Glass, her most commercially successful solo album, nor her most acclaimed, 1971’s Fly. Half of its tracks are taken from 1985’s reviled Starpeace, a misjudged excursion into mid-80s AOR for which even her staunchest supporters would struggle to make a case. As an added inducement for any floating voters to run for the exits, it concludes with Ono setting about her late husband’s Imagine, whi ch seems like a lose-lose situation. Depending on your opinion of the original, it either constitutes desecrating one of rock’s most sacred texts or unnecessarily reanimating a windy, hypocritical sermon we’ve all heard more than enough of.

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Yoko Ono: Woman Power â€" video

Musically and emotionally, Warzone splits into two categories. There are tracks that key directly into Ono’s avant-garde heritage. They feature Ono in full-on death wail mode, howling and ululating over industrial-sounding ambient soundscapes, occasionally decorated with samples of animals squawking and hooting, or, as on the remake of 1973’s Woman Power, spitting bile over a grinding blues-rock guitar. In fact, the spirit of Feeling the Space, the album that originally housed Woman Power, hangs heavy. Its sleeve notes featured a dedication to “the sisters who died in pain and sorrow for being able to survive in a male society”, and the mood here shifts from rage to despair over the situation of women in the world, evidently burnished by current events. She updates Woman Power with a new verse: “Do you know that someday you’ll have to pay? Have you anything to say except, ‘Make no mistake about it, I am the president, you hear?’” Indeed, if anything, current events seem to have made Ono’s musical vision more hostile than ever: the 1970 original of Why? was no walk in the park, but here the buoyant krautrock-ish groove that underpinned it has been stripped away, leaving only Ono’s screaming. It’s not easy listening, but it’s incredibly potent. You leave these tracks reeling slightly, not least at trying to work out who among Ono’s 70s peers is making music as challenging and confrontational as this.

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Yoko Ono: Teddy Bear â€" video

The other category is both more straightforward â€" ballads set to stark piano and guitar accompaniments, which don’t always preclude Ono letting rip with some blood-curdling vocals â€" and yet somehow trickier to navigate. It features Ono in more conciliatory mode, attempting to come up with rousing protest songs simple and direct enough to have universal appeal. You can see why Ono has a penchant for this stuff: she was, after all, the uncredited co-writer of a protest song that actually stuck, Give Peace a Chance. But it’s an incredibly hard thing to do, as evidenced by the fact that the other co-author of Give Peace a Chance spent the entirety of the 1972 album Some Time in New York City attempting to repeat the trick, with disastrous results. Itâ €™s hard to write something with universal appeal without sounding trite or naive, as happens here on Hell in Paradise or I Love You Earth. Still, if part of the reason behind Warzone was to rehabilitate the contents of Starpeace, she succeeds on a couple of occasions. Children Power should in theory be ghastly, as songs featuring children’s choirs usually are, but set to a rickety indie chug â€" like the music an American alt-rock band might come up with for a wisecracking cartoon series along the lines of Adventure Time â€" it’s charming. Teddy Bear, meanwhile, is remarkably successful: a sombre, affecting mediation on innocence and loss.

Not the only one: how Yoko Ono helped create John Lennon’s Imagine Read more

Warzone is not an album built to convince Ono’s naysayers that they’re wrong: it’s too messy and uneven, and its high points are intimidating and difficult. But what it does is prove that at 85, its creator is still capable of raging awa y with an undimmed intensity. A slip into genteel retirement looks unlikely.

This week Alexis listened to

Harvey Sutherland: Amethyst
The latest twist in the eclectic Australian producer/musician’s winding path. A shift into blissed-out, graceful jazz and drum’n’bass-inspired rhythms.

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