If John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was like a primal scream at the blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord of his psyche, the follow-up, Imagine, comes across as something more delicate. It’s a little like viewing Edvard Munch’s The Dance of Life after spending time sitting before the existential angst of The Scream. Yes, Imagine is still a confessional work and its ideas are tied to a lot of what appeared on Plastic Ono Band, but the album feels like something more fragile, something of a confessional love letter which apologizes, explicates, lays things bare, reaches out, imagines vast possibilities, then celebrates what many and varied and lovely things may come following a great purge.
The title opener is one of those songs that’s become mythic and reverential. “Imagine” is a song I remember my mom humming fondly, it’s song that sounds like a selfless child’s Christmas wish list; a song that despite its decidedly communist and atheistic overtones is still universally embraced. The power of the piano melody and Lennon’s voice move beyond personal beliefs, tapping into a common goal, a common dream. Inspired by Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit, the song constructs an image of Lennon’s utopia, a warless place without possessions and hunger and poverty, followed by that famous invitation: “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will live as one.” A staple of antiwar anthems, “Imagine” was banned by the BBC during the 1991 Gulf War for being inappropriate during a military conflict and similarly banned by Clear Channel following Sept. 11. It’s often been voted one of the best songs of all time, landing at number three in Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs list. According to a 2002 Guinness World Records poll, “Imagine” was Britain’s second favorite single of all time, falling just behind the operatic wackiness of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
As Imagine continues past the straightforward, old-fashioned ale and piano bar “Crippled Inside,” the more angsty and refined remnants from Plastic Ono Band can be found. In the slinky “I Don’t Wanna Be Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die,” Lennon’s anti-war message falls over an uneasy slide guitar and a sultry sax and bass groove. It’s followed by “Gimme Some Truth,” where Lennon’s wordplay maligns the equivocation and hypocrisy of critics, politicians and their ilk. The word choice elicits a smile, adding a playful air to an otherwise furious song. Take the line “No short haired yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky is gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me with just a pocket of hope.” The angst doesn’t end as Lennon tussles with the self-doubt on the sax and string of “It’s So Hard,” lamenting in a growl about the difficulty of living like some bluesy Sisyphus. The same theme is revisited on the much more staid “How?” in which Lennon explores uncertainties through rhetorical questions.
The most bitter, cathartic song on Imagine, “How Do You Sleep?” was a retort in the ongoing feud between Lennon — and by association George Harrison, who played the song’s slide guitar solo, Ringo Starr, who was supposedly present during recording, and post-Epstein Beatles manager Allen Klein — and Paul McCartney. It was written as a response to McCartney’s “Too Many People” from his album Ram, also released in 1971. In his ad hominem rant, Lennon rails into his former baby-faced bandmate, stating, amongst other things, that “The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you’re gone you’re just another day.” The postcard that was originally included with Imagine, which featured Lennon holding a pig by the ears, was also a dig against McCartney, a parody of the cover of Ram. McCartney attempted to bury the hatchet with “Dear Friend” from his later release that year, Wild Life, and “Let Me Roll It” on 1973’s Band on the Run. Lennon later said in an interview that “How Do You Sleep?” was about himself and not McCartney, an oblique apology for something so initially unapologetic.
Three of the other standout songs on an album of standouts feel as if they’re written as a progression of love letters to Ono. The oft-covered “Jealous Guy” is apology for Lennon’s own insecurities. Roxy Music’s cover of the song would become that band’s only chart topper. Originally written as the benign, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-inspired “Child of Nature” while Lennon was in The Beatles, “Jealous Guy” evolved during a dark period in Lennon and Ono’s relationship. Lost in a daze of drunkenness, alienation, and self-destruction, Lennon reworked “Child of Nature” into is now apologetic incarnation. The result is something that, like “Imagine,” is universal. Yet while “Imagine” taps into some common dream for peace, “Jealous Guy” taps into all the things you want to say to the person you love after your own neuroses get in the way, namely “I didn’t mean to hurt you / I didn’t mean to make you cry / I didn’t mean to hurt you / I’m just a jealous guy.”
There’s then the quiet “Oh My Love,” an affirmation of what love can accomplish. After the confession of “Jealous Guy,” “Oh My Love” seems like what’s said after the apology is accepted. At the other end of the purge, there’s a certain clarity in the heart and in the world. Lennon even sings “My eyes are wide open” and “My eyes can see,” later “My mind is wide open” and “My mind can feel.” The lyrics reach their peak with that declaration, “I feel life, oh I feel love / Everything is clear in our world.” Maybe, just maybe, love has conquered all.
And given all that had come before it and given the progression of love letters/songs, Imagine concludes with the celebratory “Oh Yoko,” a song that, at least for me, is immortalized by a synchronized popped wheelie in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Lennon spends the ode singing Ono’s praises, his layered vocals during the chorus lovingly pleading. With its playful piano and joyous harmonica, there’s nothing to do but rejoice in that fact that yes, so it seems, love does conquer all. It’s strange and yet wonderful that after the nihilistic proclamations on Plastic Ono Band‘s “God,” Lennon reaffirms that something overcomes the meaninglessness and makes everything worth it in the end. Framed by the title track and “Oh Yoko,” Imagine seems to say that the dream isn’t over and there’s something worth holding onto and it’s Yoko, Yoko, oh, Yoko.
There’s a tendency toward cynicism these days, to malign the utopian joy of ages past and to dismiss the hopeful as naïve whether deservedly so or not. A recent review on the good old blogosphere declared “Imagine” as one of the most overrated songs of all time. But both the song and the album Imagine transcend their criticisms because they feel genuine, they feel right and because they catch and hold and don’t let go. There’s that quality in Lennon’s voice, that lovely, lovely reverie, that gorgeous music that screams and kicks and dances, rejoicing in life and love and what dreams may come. It’s the type of thing that makes you a believer again.