Milk and Honey was conceived as a companion piece to Double Fantasy. Each is subtitled “A Heart Play,” and while the earlier album was meant to be something of a healing ritual (coming after John and Yoko’s eighteen-month separation and Lennon’s subsequent five-year “retirement” from recording), its successor seems designed as a portrait of domestic bliss. According to Ono’s liner notes, she and Lennon consciously adopted the image of themselves as the reincarnation of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning for Milk and Honey; the album jacket even reproduces verses by the Brownings next to lyrics by John and Yoko.
Unfortunately, the songs on the album don’t bear comparison to the work of such illustrious writers. Four of the six new Lennon compositions recycle basic rock & roll licks to accompany simple, repetitive, even clichéd lyrics (“Living on borrowed time,” “I’m stepping out,” et cetera). “Nobody Told Me,” the first single from Milk and Honey, begins promisingly with an energetic riff reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” but it immediately lapses into a routine melody with unevenly rhymed lyrics that barely make sense (“There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs/Always something happening and nothing going on”). Meanwhile, Ono’s songs range from “Sleepless Night,” a pleasantly spacey monologue, to “Your Hands,” a lumbering production number with lyrics sung in Japanese and breathily translated into English (e.g., “Your hands/Your hands/So beautiful”).
The most interesting Lennon song is also the album’s silliest. “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess” sounds like something translated from a corny Japanese opera yet rendered slightly ominous by two minor-key chords. There are other bits of goofiness throughout the album — like ad libs, scat singing and funny count-offs (“Eins, zwei, hickle, fickle!”)—which seem to confirm that these are rough tracks. Still, they paint a delightful portrait of Lennon as a cut-up. And despite the erratic quality of the material, the album sounds great. The production by Lennon and Ono (conspicuously uncredited is Jack Douglas, who coproduced Double Fantasy) is precise and crystalline, and they utilize many of the same top-notch session musicians as on Double Fantasy.
The centerpiece of Milk and Honey is a pair of songs specifically inspired by two of the Brownings’ classic poems. Presented in rough, homemade versions, they’re a little embarrassing. Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me” has the stately feel of “Imagine,” but it’s unlikely that it will become the standard — “the kind that they would play in church every time a couple gets married” — that Lennon hoped it would. And Ono’s “Let Me Count the Ways” expresses vague sentiments (“It’s like that lake in the mountains you heard about/It’s like that autumn sky that stays so blue”) that have little in common with Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
On “You’re the One,” which closes the album, Ono sings, “In the world’s eye we were Laurel and Hardy/In our minds we were Heathcliff and Cathy/…In reality we were just a boy and a girl who never looked back.” John and Yoko may have wanted to present themselves as a typical boy and girl blessed by a unique love, but almost everyone else knew them as rich, exotic, eccentric celebrities — anything but typical.
Still, they clearly loved each other deeply—just look at them on the cover of Milk and Honey, blending into one face as they kiss. Perhaps the saddest thing about Lennon’s premature death is that he and Yoko were on the verge of sharing with the world, through their art, real insights into an extraordinary relationship that had survived extremely rocky times. At the time Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey were made, John and Yoko were still reassuring themselves and imagining a future together. That’s why the most moving song on Milk and Honey is Yoko’s “Don’t Be Scared,” which captures the excitement of the emotional adventure they were on: “Sun in the east/Moon in the west/Our boat’s moving slow/There’s no land in sight at all/Away we go.” Too bad for all of us that they didn’t get further.