Yoko Ono - Warzone (Review)

Martin_Canine YOKO ONO

On the 1980 John Lennon collaboration album Double Fantasy, there’s this nice little tune called Yes, I’m Your Angel. It’s a (probably cynical) quirky and overly happy, harmonic song in the style of a 60s musical, something like out of The Sound of Music. What’s so special about this almost completely unknown song that I bring it up 38 years after its release is that it features a Yoko Ono with a bright and clear singing voice giving a nice little performance. Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING, on Warzone sounds like this. It’s constantly sung in a thin and wobbly voice that’s eerily witch-like (after all, one of her album’s titles claims she is one).

Yoko Ono’s singing got me puzzled for quite some time. On Approximately Infinite Universe, which I regard as her best record, she’s hit or miss when it’s coming to her delivery, with a majority of the songs being on the hit side. On the live version of Coffin Car featured as a bonus track on the reissue of Feeling the Space, she also gives a really decent performance. Maybe it’s just the language. Japanese, much like German, is a strictly pronounced language. English on the other hand is softer, cooler, more casual in its nature. There’s a stereotype in Austria originating from times when most people didn’t speak English that it sounds like chewing gum while speaking. The “r” and “th” sounds is what most speakers of German have problems with when learning English, as both are pronounced very differently. You can hear Ono’s vocals become strained during these letters as well. But then there’s also her vibrato, which is sometimes off at first, and then becomes more pleasant as it goes on. It is definitely safe to say that she feels a whole lot more comfortable with higher notes.

Of course, I am only talking about the Yoko Ono songs on which she actually sings in a conventional sense, with traditional compositions and songwriting and an easily understandable structure. Yes, she has such albums, too. But there’s also the more well known Yoko Ono: shouting, shrieking, laughing like a horse over a chaotic punk rock instrumental. Would you guess that especially these experimental songs are her most acclaimed? And I don’t mean that in a way that, while the others were received bad these were received average. Her Plastic Ono Band and Fly albums both received rave reviews, and she is highly regarded in performance art circles as a leading figure of the Fluxus movement. After the 80s, Yoko Ono largely dropped out of the public eye, but she actively released albums in that time, that, for the most part, can be seen as part of the more mainstream side of her career.

But now, at age 85, she releases Warzone - truly a monster of an album. To get one thing out of the way immediately: whether Yoko there was a period of time when Ono could sing or not, age hasn’t exactly helped her voice. While on Approximately Infinite Universe, her performances were equal to your average pop artist, she now has extreme problems with hitting and holding the right notes. In other words: in 2018, she definitely can’t sing anymore. Good news is that the material she works with rarely relies on singing. These songs are primarily either about the creation of an unsettling atmosphere through soundscapes or about Ono’s lyricism. The best pieces are almost spoken, and resemble poetry slam supported by score-like music.

Although Warzone feels like a completely new studio album with a very distinctive and homogenous style, it is actually a collection of re-recordings of older songs from a wide spectre of her career. Songs that received a makeover are both from her singer-songwriter days and her Fluxus days, but you would barely recognize them in their shiny new outfit. The album’s opening title track is a nightmarish collage of ghoulish music, machine gun sounds, animal cries and apocalyptic words that describe the many ways the world is in war, both metaphorically and literally.

It’s immediately clear: this woman has something to say, and her messages unfortunately lost nothing of their significance, and Ono, even at her advanced age, hasn’t lost any of her fighting spirit. She’s at war herself - against violence, against gender stereotypes, against a world that seems to desperately want to be mad at all costs. And this gloomy, hellish sounds can be heard throughout much of the record. Despite the lack of mainstream success and the public hate towards her, you can’t say Yoko Ono didn’t leave a legacy. Apart from her status in art circles, her work inspired feminist movements as well as new wave and punk rock music - or both combined in the Riot Grrrl scene. The revolting, furious statements that she released in past decades are much needed in a time that screams for countercultures and protests but gets way too little of those.

Here we come to what makes most of the album so intense despite the lackluster singing: Ono has personality, and she truly feels the words she shouts out. There are these little moments when her anger, disappointment and horror come through as she progresses, which is when the biggest positive surprise comes in: the newly found production value manages to do incredible work to her bizarre vocal experiments. Now, they manage to sound truly expressive and honest. On Hell in Paradise and Woman Power, both of which feature her trademark screams only briefly, the terror in her voice receives a haunting dimension, it feels like an authentic reaction to what she sang before. And the new outfit does wonders to Why, which is the only song that consists entirely of her noise making. This jam turns from a disjointed chaotic mess to the perfect horror soundtrack. Gone are the walls of wild rock music. Instead the production is stripped to deep, surreal fragments, and a lot of feedback is added to her voice, so that it sounds all the more traumatic. Maybe they should have hired Yoko Ono instead of Thom Yorke for the Suspiria soundtrack of 2018.

In contrast to such moments of stunning thrill and highly appreciated, powerful idealism are a few songs on which she actually tries to sing. And wow, does she fail. It’s Gonna Rain is a complete disaster on any level. It’s what every TV actor that was singing bad on purpose for comic effect sounded like - false notes, no feeling at all, barely being able to hold the tone. As I said, she never was the most brilliant vocalist, but there are many, many songs where she leaves a pleasant, enjoyable impression - and there are Yes, I’m Your Angel and Coffin Car (Live), which would be her voice’s ideal state - but this is a new low. I can only blame that her age damaged her vocal cords, as we were already past that stage in the 70s. Just compare it to the original version from her 80s album Starpeace. That rendition was a solidly sung pop ballad. Not a masterpiece, but it didn’t stand out negatively either. 30 years later, it turned into… this. Another low point of the record is its closing track - Imagine. Although I must say I enjoy the idea of her covering Lennon’s signature song as both a middle finger to all the Beatles fanboys hating on her and as a fitting closing song to an album that dealt with the world’s issues. In all honesty: John Lennon did have a technically average voice as well, although an extremely characteristic one that makes him stand out positively. Imagine is not such a challenging song to sing, all it takes it personality to carry it. Nobody will be able to sing it with such honesty, passion and enchantment as him, the one and only definite version will always be his, but it’s possible to cover it decently without ruining it. Yoko Ono herself did a better job at her 1986 live cover of the song, which wasn’t exactly great either, but absolutely passable. I can’t say the same about her 2018 rendition, which sounds very much off. Gladly, such moments are the minority of the album.

All in all, Warzone would have been a thoroughly suspenseful political album if it stuck to the combination of bleak sounds, poetry slam and vocal acrobatics. For the most part it is, but the flaws are too extreme to be overlooked. But nevertheless: creating an album that’s so engaging and full of youthful spirit at age 85 deserves much respect. And it’s the kind of album we need more of these days, by younger and aspiring artists as well. Chelsea Wolfe created a similar album called Hiss Spun last year. It was a borderline masterpiece, but did it receive much attention? Unfortunately not.

The day when Yoko Ono will be fully appreciated as an artist may never come. Even if all the drama involving The Beatles and John Lennon one day wears off, times have changed too much for her artistry. There was a time when musical expression was felt, not logically understood. When roughness and honesty were more important than vocals violently pressed into an unnaturally perfect pitch to sound like a robot. There was a time when avantgarde was well liked by the public, and when the different cultures highly influenced each other. Nowadays, we’re used to the professionally executed product. In and of itself, that’s nothing bad, but… can’t there be a place for both?