If John Lennon had only been one of the four members of the Beatles, his artistic immortality would already have been assured. The so-called “smart Beatle,” he brought a penetrating intelligence and a stinging wit both to the band’s music and its self-presentation. But in such songs as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Rain” and “In My Life,” he also marshaled gorgeous melodies to evoke a sophisticated, dreamlike world-weariness well beyond his years. Such work suggested not merely a profound musical and literary sensibility but a vision of life that was simultaneously reflective, utopian and poignantly realistic.
Plastic Ono Band (1970), the first solo album he made after leaving the Beatles, alternates songs that are so emotionally raw with songs of extraordinary beauty and simplicity.
The minimalist sound of Plastic Ono Band was significant. Co-producing with Ono and the legendary Phil Spector, he built a sonic environment that could not have been more basic – guitar, bass, drums, the occasional piano.
On his next album, Imagine (1971), Lennon reintroduced some melodic elements reminiscent of the Beatles into his songs. Working again with Ono and Spector, he retains the eloquent plainspokenness of Plastic Ono Band, but allows textural elements such as strings, to create more of a sense of beauty. The album’s title track alone ensured its historical importance; it is a call to idealism that has provided solace and inspiration at every moment of social and humanitarian crisis since it was written.
From there Lennon turned to a style that was a sort of journalistic agit-prop. Sometime In New York City (1972) is as outward-looking and blunt as Imagine was, for the most part, soft-focused and otherworldly. As its title suggests, the album reflects Lennon’s immersion in the drama and noise of the city to which he had moved with Yoko Ono. And as its cover art suggests, the album is something like a newspaper – a report from the radical frontlines on the political upheavals of the day.