Top of the Pops: Double Fantasy

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November 11, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Rumor has it that one of the biggest reasons why John Lennon recorded Double Fantasy was because he needed to one up Paul McCartney after he believed his former bandmate had finally recorded a decent solo album.  But, judging by the material on the album, it seemed like Lennon was more inspired by his family, namely his favorite son Sean Lennon to whom many of the songs on the album are written about, including standout track “Beautiful Boy”.

Double Fantasy will always and forever be associated back to Lennon’s assassination, three weeks after the album’s release, not only because of the close proximity to his death, but also because of the dichotomous nature of the album itself, and how it reflects upon Lennon’s own dual nature.  The first truth of Double Fantasy is that it really isn’t a John Lennon album, but instead, a John Lennon/Yoko Ono duet as she writes and sings on half the album’s tracks.  Although this strengthens and consolidates the albums’ themes of family and marriage, all of her tracks prove to be much weaker than Lennon’s songs.  On “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” and “Give Me Something”, it sounds like Ono tries way too hard to keep pace with her husband, while on “Yes, I’m Your Angel” has no place on an 80s pop album since it’s circus theatrics bring the pace of the album to a screeching halt.

The biggest problem with Yoko’s half of the album is that she tries to come off as too sophisticated to the point of being esoteric, like you have to bring yourself to her level instead of her doing that for you.  By contrast, Lennon’s half are better overall, but still plagued by glaring flaws.  The biggest pleasant surprise on the album is that Lennon’s voice sounds just as good as it ever did despite his five year hiatus from music to raise Sean.  Stylistically, his songs are more coherent to the overall nature of the album than are Yoko’s, do to him being a better musician.  “Cleanup Time” is an awesome song with a funky riff reminiscent of “Fame”, which Lennon co-wrote as well.  But, it’s awesome until you realize that it’s about him literally cleaning up the kitchen after his son made a mess of things.

The best track on the album is “Beautiful Boy”, a lullaby written to comfort his son, and it’s hear that the ideas behind Double Fantasy shine through.  This isn’t an album written by a rock star, or John Lennon, former Beatle, it’s an album written by a middle-aged father and husband.  Unfortunately, many of the other songs on the album lack the sincerity, vulnerability, and sheer tenderness of “Beautiful Boy”.  We get Yoko’s love song for their son with her own plagiarized “Beautiful Boys” which is really just a haunting description of what little boys do.  Why she tells her four year old child “Don’t be afraid to go to Hell and back” is beyond me, and beyond reason.

The only time that the musical union of Lennon and Ono succeeds is in the call and response relationship with “I’m Losing You”, and “I’m Moving On”.  The former is Lennon’s professed fear of losing Ono, while the latter is her empty threat to move on from their relationship which was publically littered with problems.  It’s the only time on the album that they actually feel like a couple who are equal partners in each other’s lives, and in the production of the album.  For an album centered around family, it’s the only time when we get the feeling that a husband and wife are on the same page.

With the exception of “Watching the Wheels” which sounds like a sequel to “Imagine”, all of Lennon’s tracks seem to predict the upcoming pop trends of the 80s.  For being able to experiment with a sound that was still a few years away from becoming popularized, Double Fantasy succeeds in that regard mostly because it doesn’t seem like a happy accident.  It actually seemed like Lennon was intent on making an album that would have sonic and stylistic relevance some five years down the line.  Even if the execution is flawed, listeners should still appreciate the sincerity.

Although he was killed less than a month after the release of Double Fantasy, Lennon was still alive to see the early reviews, most of which were unkind, but accurate nonetheless.  What makes the album so problematic, besides the fact that Yoko had a 50% claim to it, is that it’s an astonishingly self-indulgent and esoteric album that is in love with itself.  Because they are being so forthright with themselves, Lennon and Ono come off as being impersonal and arrogant.  Why would they think that people would want to hear an album’s worth of material about them declaring their love for each other?  Incidentally enough, after Lennon’s death everyone changed their opinions of Double Fantasy with many labeling it a masterpiece.[1]

Because it was his last album, we want to remember it as a classic, on par with his greater works, in the hope of convincing ourselves that he went out on top, especially when the last track on the album is entitled “Hard Times are Over”.  We don’t want to remember Lennon’s last creative output as being underwhelming or uninspiring; we want to remember it as being a creative forerunner of upcoming musical trends, and as laying the groundwork for the ensuing popular music.  Double Fantasy isn’t a particularly good album, nor is it atrocious.  If people want to embrace it as a classic, I understand why, I also know that they’re wrong to do so.  It’s not without its merits, particularly “Beautiful Boy” and “Cleanup Time”, but ultimately, by music alone, Double Fantasy is not the return to glory that many had anticipated.


 

[1] It went on it with Album of the Year at the 1981 Grammys.

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