There are times when nepotism makes sense. The ardent patronage of her husband, John Lennon, enabled Yoko Ono to record and release some of the most fearless and prophetic music in avant-rock: the 1970 shriek feast Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band; the proto-No Wave bedlam of her 71 double album, Fly; the immortal 1981 serrated-boogie thang “Walking on Thin Ice.” On Rising, her first studio album in nearly a decade, Ono wisely dives back into the gene pool — this time with a crude-groove trio, IMA, led by her son, Sean Ono Lennon.
Based on the corrosive vigor of his guitar playing and IMA’s strong minimalist rumble, Sean Lennon is the most sympathetic collaborator Ono has had since his father was killed. The leanness of Rising is a major improvement on the sugar-shock overproduction of Ono’s mid-’80s solo albums and shows Lennon’s confidence in the idiosyncratic vitality of his mother’s voice. He, bassist Timo Ellis and drummer Sam Koppelman let Ono’s rippling yelps and raw lamentations roam free over the fat clang of a rhythm guitar in “New York Woman” and the brute rain-dance pulse of “Turned the Corner.” “I’m Dying” sounds like the Plastic Ono Jesus Lizard: one grinding chord progression cranked up to a crowd-surfing frenzy with Ono going into the kind of death-warble overdrive you usually don’t expect from a 62-year-old millionairess.
The purgative quality of the music suits the gravity of the lyrics. Rising is not a collection of greeting-card pleas for world peace but a song cycle for the dying and the ones left behind — something that Ono personally knows something about. The plain-spoken shiver with which she renders the episodes of rape, murder and child abuse in the bone-dry reggae stroll “Wouldnit” suggests the dark intimacy of a frightened young girl’s secret diary. In “Kurushi” — Japanese for “tormented” or “suffocating” — she loses herself vocally in the huge spaces left by Lennon’s austere piano figure and in the word itself, drawing out the syllables with emphatic desperation.
There are ballads and beatitudes as well (“Goodbye, My Love”; “Revelations,” a softer, sweeter variation on John Lennon’s martial hymn “God”). But Rising is mostly about passage through pain, and nothing broadcasts that more vividly than the lengthy title track. Singing tentatively at first, Ono works up to her breaking point, ripping at the lyrics (“Have courage, have rage, we’re rising”) like they were raw meat over Sean Lennon’s two-chord strum and the naked syncopation of bongos. Like the Stooges’ classic mantra “We Will Fall,” “Rising” draws on the base element of howling rock & roll expression — 14 minutes of crawling through shit to get to sunlight. That’s not avant-garde. It’s just music as real life.