There are only a handful of people who can understand what it’s like to be Sean Lennon, the son of rock royalty attempting a musical career of his own. Dhani Harrison hasn’t yet released anything of his own, but is still formulating a musical career, and has even been rumored to be starting a band with John Squire and Liam Gallagher. Zak Starkey is probably the most successful yet most forgotten, just like his underrated father. He played drums for Johnny Marr, Oasis and the Who. Stella McCartney avoided rock and roll altogether, instead opting for a career in fashion. Stepbrother Julian had a career for awhile, but the comparisons to his famous father were just too much of a burden to escape. Jakob Dylan is also well aware of the burdens of a progeny’s music career, having had to live in the shadow of father Bob. While Dylan and Starkey succeeded in their own ways, others have suffered. In other words, it’s a crapshoot. Sean Lennon, like the above named stars, can’t really win. If he consciously tries to avoid an obvious Beatles influence, he’s denying his heritage. After all, who better to sound like the Beatles than someone who lived and breathed that music through their father, one of the group’s members and principal songwriters? Then again, if he sounds too much like his father, he’s unfairly judged to impossible standards to the best rock band in history.
For a while, Sean resisted the lure of the solo spotlight, instead playing supporting roles for other bands including Soulfly and Cibo Matto. Eight years ago, he was heard by Adam Yauch, aka MCA, and signed as a solo artist to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Records. He released Into the Sun, an album that got mixed reviews for the exact reasons enumerated above, although most found his melodies ironically faulting more towards McCartney-esque than Lennon-esque. Eight years have passed since Into the Sun and five years since signing to the Beatles’ label Capitol, with barely a peep from Lennon. Finally, with a host of songs sprung from heartache, tragedy, broken friendships and regret, Sean has resurfaced.
As the son of a famous musician, Sean has maybe obviously been attracted to working with people who share the same histories. He once dated Elizabeth Jagger and also Bijou Phillips, the latter of whom somewhat inspired this recent album, Friendly Fire. Lennon also recruited the help of guitarist Harper Simon, the son of Paul Simon. One listen to Friendly Fire should easily inform the listener as to the guiding force on the album, one Jon Brion, who plays multiple instruments on the album. At first listen, opening song “Dead Meat” sounds like everything Brion has had a hand in, the music of Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, and the film music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. There’s a sense of sadness and whimsy all at the same time, something for which his father was also known. “Wait for Me” then makes the Beatles connection rather obvious. The melody and cadence is almost lifted from “I’m Only Sleeping.” Sean can sound like his father. His voice is higher and reedier, but there are similarities that only blood can reveal. “Spectacle” is one of the highlights of the album, a fully formed sweeping arrangement that can be counted amongst both Lennon’s and Brion’s best.
Truth be told, this is as much Jon Brion’s latest album as it is Sean Lennon’s. Who better to pick to play on Friendly Fire than the man most often compared to George Martin? Purportedly, Brion was supposed to have collaborated with Elliott Smith before his untimely death, and after hearing Lennon’s album, one can surmise that this is close to the album that the pairing would have made. Lennon’s themes, words, and sometimes vocal delivery can echo Smith’s at times, and considering Smith’s penchant for all things Beatles, the similarities make sense. Smith, too, labored in a band, eschewing the spotlight until much later. So, essentially, Lennon has more to live up to than just the fame of his father. He also has the horde of artists inspired by the Beatles with which to be compared, as well as the roster of artists handled by his talented producer. All in all, I’d still say that all of Lennon’s choices were sound. Despite all of the burdens and the overpowering influences, Lennon manages to sound like Sean Lennon, and Sean Lennon sounds damn pretty.