Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

In 1969, on the "Get Back" single, the Beatles announced a retreat from the orchestrated intricacy of the grand statement that was Sgt. Pepper. In April 1970, beating Lennon's solo debut by eight months on the calendar and five places on the charts, Sgt. Pepper mastermind Paul unveiled his home-overdubbed one-man-band lark, McCartney. But Plastic Ono Band was the shocker. Its harmonic surface uningratiating, its rhythms simple to the point of crudity, its tempos too deliberate even when they sped up a little, this wasn't just spare--it was stark, somber, almost a "primal scream," as the Arthur Janov therapy John and Yoko Ono had just undergone was called. Beginning and ending with songs about Lennon's dead mother and spiked with scary ululations in the middle, it was as grim as Black Sabbath, just then making their own post-'60s dent.

Unsurprisingly, Lennon did grim smarter than Black Sabbath. The historic scale and analytic detail of "Working Class Hero," "I Found Out," and "Isolation" have always been rare virtues in political pop, and the patterns of oppression they lay out have only gotten worse since. Because the existential anxieties of "Hold On" and "God" are thought through, they're more harrowing than the usual adolescent angst-mongering, too. And as you listen deeper you realize that the music isn't stark at all. While canning his customary furbelows, coproducer Phil Spector works to make this de facto manifesto grand in its spareness. Every note reverberates. The drums Ringo Starr pounds seem funereal, just as the piano Lennon pounds seems orchestral. And left out in the open, without protective harmonies or racket, Lennon's singing takes on an expressive specificity that anyone in search of the century's great vocal performances would be foolish to overlook.

Rolling Stone, June 10, 1999