Besides being an eloquent elegy for John Lennon, Season of Glass is Yoko Ono’s most accessible and assured album. Produced by Ono and Phil Spector, whose connection with the project ended before its completion, the LP is an intelligent blend of aesthetic experimentation and pop form, in which each genre complements and illuminates the other. As a personal expression of grief and rage over a violent and senseless tragedy, Season of Glass is remarkably restrained, so that when the inevitable outburst comes, it has the shock of sudden horror erupting within a relatively tranquil setting. It might have been easier — and probably also more emotionally tempting — for Yoko Ono to dwell on John Lennon’s murder. Instead, she’s fitted the events ??st December into the broader framework of an artistic vision that hasn’t changed substantially in the eleven years of her solo recording career.
Season of Glass’ fourteen compositions are a fascinating montage of memories, dreams and incantations, most of which seem to touch on the tragedy, even though many were actually written much earlier. John Lennon’s name isn’t mentioned in any lyric, but his presence is everywhere — from the cover photo of his shattered eyeglasses to Ono’s moving liner notes, which explain that the album wasn’t dedicated to Lennon because “he was one of us.” There are several highly charged fragments that relate directly to the murder. “I Don’t Know Why,” Yoko Ono’s one song of outright grief, is a compelling incantation with a coda in which her voice rises in fury: “You bastards! Hate us … /Hate me… We had everything….” It’s a devastating moment, because its nonspecificness underlines its universality. “You bastards” could be everybody who ever resented the couple for their happiness and success. They could be the critics and commentators who scorned Ono’s art and blamed her for breaking up the Beatles. They could be the fates themselves. They’re probably all this and more.
The voice of the Lennons’ son, Sean, is also heard. Between tracks, he starts to tell a story, then pauses to remark: “I learnt this from my daddy, you know.” Wisely, Ono uses such tear-jerking only once. Another number is prefaced by the sound of gunshots. Finally, there is Yoko, disconsolate and terribly alone, as she answers the telephone. Some people will find these references exploitative. But imagine how callous Ono would have appeared if she hadn’t alluded to her husband’s death at all.
Musically, Season of Glass extends the sound and style of Double Fantasy, utilizing many of the same musicians. In these spare, immaculate studio arrangements, Phil Spector’s hand isn’t keenly evident. Only “Mindweaver” evokes the hushed mysticism that was Spector’s aural translation of the Beatles’ spiritual legacy. Stylistically, the new LP is Yoko Ono’s most varied collection to date, with tunes ranging from austere, Fifties-influenced rock & roll ballads (“Goodbye Sadness”) to vaudevillian novelties (“Turn of the Wheel,” “Will You Touch Me”) that show off her girlishness to its best advantage. “Dogtown” sounds like a dadaist update of Kurt Weill, while “Nobody Sees Me like You Do” echoes the compelling starkness of Lennon’s “Oh Yoko.” “Mother of the Universe,” Ono’s feminist “Lord’s Prayer,” boasts strong classical leanings.
The album’s most powerful song, “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” is a hypnotic dance-rocker in the style of Ono’s excellent post-Double Fantasy single, “Walking on Thin Ice.” In both performances, the artist demonstrates that she’s found an ideal setting for her primal singing in the rigid, trancelike atmosphere of this idiom. Contemporary dance-rock’s self-conscious primitivism, with its fusion of technological sophistication and minimalist aesthetics, brilliantly reflects the contradictions between the worldly and the childlike in Ono’s sensibility.
As a balladeer, Yoko Ono can be charming, though her small soprano has its obvious limitations. She’s a terrific experimental New Wave rock singer, however. Ono hasn’t simply strayed into this milieu by accident — indeed, she was instrumental in creating it. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, Lene Lovich, Lydia Lunch, even Patti Smith, owe a debt of gratitude to her for helping smash the distinctions between avant-garde vocalese and mainstream rock. (Meanwhile, the avant-garde vocal tradition from which Ono emerged flourishes. Laurie Anderson, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk and Elizabeth Swados, to name four vastly different New York-based performing artists of substantial talent, have, whether they know it or not, umbilical ties to Yoko Ono.)
On Season of Glass, Ono’s lyrics simultaneously subvert and exalt pop-rock conventions. She often eschews the normal cadences of lyric diction for a more direct and intuitive style that borders on speech-song. Frequently, she doesn’t bother with rhymes, and in a genre in which terseness is considered a cardinal virtue, she can fill up whole verses and choruses with repetition. At times, her language is telegraphic in its omission of connective words. Also, there’s a bold, cinematic quality in the way she manipulates tone and imagery, jump-cutting between abstract, panoramic reflections and specific details. This jump-cut technique of assemblage, with its sometimes jarring emotional juxtapositions, characterizes the LP’s form: a core of abrupt contrasts, beginning and ending on a peacefully wistful note.
Between the opening “Goodbye Sadness” and the closing “Mother of the Universe,” Ono deals with the whole range of human emotions. There are sweet dreams (“Silver Horse”) and shattered dreams (“Toyboat”), sexual paranoia (“No, No, No”), naked fear (“Will You Touch Me”), regret (“Even When You’re Far Away”), loneliness (“Nobody Sees Me like You Do”) and despair (“Dogtown”). My favorite lyric, “She Gets Down on Her Knees,” describes brutal self-confrontation with repetitive, aphoristic phrases: “She gets down on her knees to throw up … /She gets down on her knees to make up life….”
Inventing provocative enigmas has always been one of Yoko Ono’s aesthetic strategies. The quintessential conceptual artist in all of her media work, she probes for the positive resonances in ideas by asking questions instead of issuing statements, or by starting statements and then leaving them unfinished. By making it necessary for us to complete what she has begun, Ono, at least theoretically, is eliminating the conventional barriers between artist and spectator, and by extension, between art and life.
Because its orientation is factual and not conceptual, the mass media is notoriously resistant to the abstract and the enigmatic. Ono, with her husband’s fervent support, has helped break down some of the resistance to art outside of its “approved” bourgeois setting. Again and again, in their records and communiqués, the Lennons presented art as an event rather than as an artifact. If their experiments weren’t always successful, they were never less than provocative.
What’s art and what isn’t art varies, of course, according to whom you ask. If Ono didn’t put so much of her feelings into what she does, the art-versus-life, artifact-versus-concept argument would interest only the academics. But Yoko Ono gives us her all. Season of Glass is vivid with her exotic personality, her overflowing emotional life and her idiosyncratic vision. Ono’s universe is a matriarchy where even the Creator is feminine. Her utopia is an idealized, enlightened child world, in which our capacity for wonder and joy is our most precious gift. Here, sexuality is polymorphous, with traditional masculine-feminine roles blurred and lovers achieving union as much through the intertwining of consciousness as through physical eroticism. This idyllic world, where the guiding principle is maternal love, certainly isn’t everyone’s idea of heaven. But, to me, it sounds a lot better than the world we live in. And at least for Yoko Ono, simply to imagine such a world is to admit the very real possibility of its existing. Again.