Yoko Ono is traditionally discussed in the context of the late John Lennon, but her own work has stood defiantly apart since their first recorded efforts in the late '60s. Like Lennon, Ono investigated her life style and ambitions with a frequently self-indulgent methodology that sometimes produced eclectic insights. Expanding Arthur's Janov's primal scream into pop lyricism, both Ono and Lennon seemed content to relive their most painful experiences publicly. Although many albums shared last year's "Double Fantasy" format of splitting the space, a number of solo Ono albums served as molds for "Seasons of Glass" (Geffen GHS2004), which will be released this week.
"Season of Glass" is bound to be a controversial album, coming so soon after the assassination of Lennon in December (Ono started recording in March with much the same crew that played on "Double Fantasy"). But Ono has a long history of working out her grief immediately as far back as 1969's "Baby Heartbeat" from "Unfinished Music No.2/Life With the Lions," which used tapes of their unborn child's fetal heartbeat to deal with the Lennons' grief over a subsequent miscarriage. There were many other cathartic songs to follow, including "Don't Worry Kyoko, Mummy's Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow," dealing with the custody battle for her daughter by a previous marriage.
With the "Approximately Infinite Universe" and "Feeling the Space" albums, Ono started to put aside her abstract expressionism for a more normal rock approach that muted the pain through increasingly polished melodies and production: still, they produced such depressing songs as "What a Bastard Life Is" and "I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window." This working out of personal traumas evolved on "Double Fantasy" into a languid grace and comfort that reflected the Lennons coming to terms with themselves as pop icons, family members and individuals. In some ways, it was the end of a cycle of diaries begun with "Two Virgins" in 1968, but many people (myself included) ridiculed their cozy familiarity, and many will feel uncomfortable with the generally anguished tone of "Season of Glass." No one would deny the public grief after the public trauma, but public therapy is a hazy and heretofore uncharted territory.
Surprisingly, only four of the album's 14 songs were written after Lennon's killing. "Will You Touch Me" goes back to 1971, while "Even When You're Far Away," "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do," "Turn of the Wheel," "Extension 33," "Toy Boat," "Dogtown" and "She Gets Down on Her Knees" all date from 1973. "Mother of the Universe" comes from 1978; "Silver Horse," "Goodbye Sadness" and "Mindweaver" bear 1980 copyrights, though only the last two seem tied to Lennon's death. "I Don't Know Why" and "No No No" are songs of the sad new year; there are also several spoken passages, including Sean Lennon's telling of an elliptical story and Ono's end of a telephone conversation, possibly with Lennon.
The major problem with "Season of Glass" is that beyond a gut emotional reaction, it delivers far less than it offers. Ono, who tends toward avantgarde styles grounded in classicism, has a barely intuitive grasp of pop melodies, though she's long replaced her bizarre vocal abstractions with a haunting vibrancy and emotional intensity; on this album, Ono sounds like a subdued blend of the McGarrigle Sisters and Nico. In several places, her voice breaks or chokes and one starts sensing the difficulty of making this album.
A number of the songs -- "Toyboat," "Silver Horse," "Nobody Sees Me Like You Do" and "Will You Touch Me" -- extend the torchy or metaphorically dense moods of "Double Fantasy" in pretty -- and slight -- fashion. The playing throughout is excellent, but somehow it seems unimportant that Michael Brecker turns in a powerfully mournful sax solo on "Goodbye Sadness" or that the dark mood of "Mindweaver" is achingly enhanced by a muffled, funereal drum and bass bottom and Spanish guitar lines that seem drawn from "To Die in Madrid."
The songs that will receive the most attention are "Dogtown," "No No No" and "I Don't Know Why," all of which feature hard-edged discoish beats and vivid new wave accents. The last begins as a eulogy whose frequently repeated motif if "I don't know why/It was getting so good with us"; it climaxes in the only flush of unrepressed anger on the album, with Ono bitterly shouting "You bastards . . . hate us . . . hate me . . . we had it all . . . you . . ." "No No No" starts off with four rim shots that sounds like gunfire, followed by a scream and then Ono scattering her lyrics over a sonorous texture; "Let me take my scarf off/No no no/Yes Yes Yes/Don't help me/I can do it and you know it/Don't touch me, I don't like it," followed by sensual/sexual confusion in which "I see broken glass when we do it," ending with the words "I don't know what you promised me/But I know you didn't keep it" and a traffic-jam-ambulance-screaming cacophony.
"Dogtown," though written in 1973, is the album's most powerful song, with direct, despondent lyrics that will haunt many listeners for a long time. A sampling: "The town's dawning, I'm the only one awake/The streets are whistling/I light my fourth cigarette/I think of my friends/They were once not so dead/What are they thinking now . . . Someday I'll be remembered for the phone calls I never made/Letters I never mailed and stories I never finished telling anyone . . . The town's yawning/I let my dog walk me around/He took a ---- and people smiled/I tried to sing and people frowned . . . Someday I'll be remembered for the fine words I meant to keep/A warm smile I meant to leave/And a true song I meant to finish writing all my life."
On "Season of Glass," Yoko Ono has compiled a work of life, not art; the listener will take away comfort or confusion from that creation.