John Lennon - Imagine - Review
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critics' view

John Lennon’s most famous album is not what it seems. A huge commercial success both upon its release and immediately after Lennon’s murder, Imagine is generally seen as the star’s inevitable return to conventional pop after the ferocious flurry of avant-garde experiments, protest singles, primal confessionals and live rave-ups of the Yoko Ono-led 1968-70 period. But, beyond the title-track and the presence of Phil Spector and George Harrison, Imagine is a weird, ramshackle collection of eclectic gems that uniquely links Lennon the raging politico (and lippy bitch) with Lennon the peace-loving dreamer and adoring husband.

So, among the jams and co-producer Spector’s clever mix of orchestral pomp and punkish lo-fi, the listener’s interest in these 10 songs is inevitably drawn toward five of the most notable songs of Lennon’s career. Gimme Some Truth is one of the greatest protest songs ever recorded, a glistening product of the tension between Lennon’s rapier-wit fury at the hypocrisy of political leaders, and the sheer Beatle-esque beauty of melody and arrangement. How? is both beautiful and profound; a calm-after-the-storm orchestral ballad that captures the eternal confusion of Being Human with humble grace.

If you only know Jealous Guy as Roxy Music’s worst-ever record, then the original, with its courageous and accurate portrayal of male neediness and insecurity, will be a tear-jerking shock. And How Do You Sleep?’s attack on Paul McCartney is still a bizarre listen, the track’s lazy, laconic white soul stroll hitting Lennon’s vicious indiscretions home with a swaggering arrogance.

And, of course, there’s Imagine. Imagine you hadn’t heard it 5,000 times already, and been told to hear it as either the 20th century’s greatest hymn to human transcendence, or a sickening ode to millionaire hypocrisy and complacency. Then what you might hear, beneath the clamour, is the rough prettiness of the piano, the humility of the vocal, the skill of the arrangement and song craft. Good luck with that.

Elsewhere, Crippled Inside and I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama are enjoyable roots-rock jams masquerading as protest song, Oh My Love and Oh Yoko! are the first of many simpering tributes to Lennon’s bird, and It’s So Hard is a sexual double-entendre in search of a decent tune. Sprinkled among the benchmark Lennon songs listed above, they make for an album of abruptly shifting moods and a sense of fun and mischief that were fated to never appear again within Lennon’s work. It’s this spontaneity and joy that makes Imagine Lennon’s most popular solo album, if not his best.

Garry Mulholland
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading.
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