Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sincerity Is Never Enough

As a long-time admirer of Yoko One, I've never believed she broke up the Beatles or turned her hubby into a love slave, but that doesn't mean I'd have thought much about her without him, or been a whole lot worse for having missed her. Rereading Grapefruit, which I've always enjoyed, or listening back to Plastic Ono Band, which I once dismissed as the wages of affirmative action, I reencounter a unique artist who's in some ways "ahead of her time." Unique, engaging, worthwhile, but less than essential or compelling--not one of those seminal avant-gardists (John Cage, say, or Philip Glass) pop partisans like me can't get away with ignoring. Maybe her striking if erratic pop coups prove her inherent genius. But they certainly prove pop's inherent democracy--just like "You're So Vain," they remind us that its embrace is available even to rich artsy-fartsies.

Before Double Fantasy, Yoko's pop successes comprised scattered tracks too minor to qualify as coups. When putatively commercial albums like Absolutely Infinite Universe weren't just awkward and dull, they trafficked in condescending preachments and attempts to translate the cryptic/cosmic simplicity of something like Grapefruit's "Earth Piece"--"Listen to the sound of the earth turning"--into three-minute songs, which were usually way too long. She did better with avant-rock experiments like Fly and Plastic Ono Band--the likes of Arto Lindsay and Cindy Wilson have studied the humor, anger, and detail of her best vocalese, and some of the blues-etc. elementals down below are just cosmic/cryptic enough. In fact, one virtue of her pop coups--the '80s Lennon collaborations and the solo Season of Glass--is the way they tease her most sure-footed commercial arrangements with aberrant vocalese as well as abrasive/mechanical hints of people's avant-rock, by which I mean punk and disco. She sings more confidently on these records, too. But big deal--all this is also true of the two solo albums she's done for Polydor, 1982's self-produced It's Alright and 1985's Bill Laswell-produced Starpeace, both of which fall flat on their budgets.

Laswell looked like the perfect choice to assist Yoko's rebound from the "air play" of It's Alright, especially given his commitment to non-Western music and his penchant for avant-gardists, mostly jazzmen but a few of Yoko's ilk. His trademark detachment seemed certain to toughen her up. But despite unfailingly humorless lyrics and skillful input of Laswell regulars from Sly & Robbie to Aiyb Dieng and Anton Fier, Starpeace is insistently, self-consciously, and rather clumsily light in the head. Often it even tries to be cute, which is difficult for anyone and utterly impossible for Laswell, who isn't exactly a froth specialist. Sure he helps her come up with hooks as well as beats, that's his job, but the overall effect is as joyless as the kind of record Toto might cut for a buddy of their manager's. This is the soulless studio-rock anti-intellectuals have always accused Laswell of making.

So if Starpeace improves on It's Alright, the advance is strictly professional. Except for the nicely suggestive "Cape Clear," I don't find much substance in the new record's supposed reengagement with life's downside. I'll certainly take It's Alright's "Loneliness," a wail worthy of Season of Glass, over Starpeace's "Remember Raven," a malediction unworthy of "How Do You Sleep?" Both albums traffic in the kind of preachments that are hard to bring off even when condescension no longer seems the problem. And both rise to the cute challenge of one silly love song: It's Alright's "My Man," which is probably for John, and Starpeace's "You and I," which is definitely for Sean.

If Yoko-haters have come this far, it's out of respect for the dead--they know better than to expect her to make decent rock and roll without John. And I think they're right, but not for the obvious reasons. Maybe John masterminded the music on Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey (Some Time in New York City, too), but though he was alive for most of the songwriting that ended up on Season of Glass, that was Yoko's record--her mourning album, in fact. Which leads right to my more mystical (and affectionate) theory--I think John is Yoko's only pop subject. Yoko doesn't come naturally to pop; she's fascinated by fame because she's fascinated by power, not out of some burning need to communicate. Her normal artistic voice is sly, enigmatic aloof--cryptic, if also cosmic. But one thing she wants to make clear to every human being on earth--she really did love that man.

I don't doubt that Yoko's desire to convey her current message of hope and self-betterment is sincere, but whatever inspiration went into Starpeace got lost on its way to the grooves--even on the song Yoko reports and I believe was dictated to her by a rainbow. She does care deeply about power, but it would be unlike her to share insight in that crucial area. And I suppose it's hopeless to wish she'd try and recapitulate the advances of Fly and Plastic Ono Band: she's a pop star now, even if she never has anything remotely approaching a hit again. But artistically, she might be better off if she'd never enjoyed her pop coups. Some people are born to rock, and others are born to be elitists, and at this historical moment, that's not the end of the world.

Village Voice, Dec. 10, 1985