Milk and Honey
While 1980’s Double Fantasy offered a vision of a decidedly mainstream, self-reflective, and pleasant John Lennon easing his way back into the very musical world he’d spent the past five years hiding, 1984’s Milk and Honey gives us an extended glimpse of the musical path Lennon might have begun to follow if he hadn’t been murdered. While Lennon’s contributions to the album consist mostly of rough demos left relatively incomplete at the time of his death, a number of fairly strong Lennon songs appear on the album, most notably “Borrowed Time” and “Nobody Told Me”. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the album stands as among the weakest of Lennon’s solo efforts (and of Ono’s solo efforts too, frankly), a failure at least partly owed, no doubt, to Lennon’s passing before the album could be completed and his vision of the album could be more fully realized and incorporated.
The material that comprises Milk and Honey was intended by Lennon and Ono to form the basis of a follow up album to Double Fantasy. The album was completed and assembled by Yoko Ono in the three years following the murder as a companion piece of sorts. Thematically, the album overlaps with and, to some measure, comments upon and advances a number of the themes explored in Double Fantasy. While that album is largely about forgiveness and the act of a couple becoming reunited, Milk and Honey is, or at least attempts to be, about a couple enjoying domestic and romantic bliss together. While songs like “Grow Old With Me” demonstrate the level of love and affection Lennon harbored for Ono, “Nobody Told Me”, “I’m Stepping Out”, and “Borrowed Time” demonstrate both a startling sense of continued self-awareness on Lennon’s part that harkens back to several of his Double Fantasy compositions and, in the case of “Borrowed Time”, a revelation of the extent to which Lennon was aware of his own mortality.
Lennon’s work on these songs also shows him moving slowly away from the more poppy and mainstream sounds and engaging in a greater level of sonic and lyrical experimentation. Though the album offers a more cohesive vision and narrative than Double Fantasy does, Lennon’s work on the album simply does not pack the same sonic or intellectual punch that his earlier solo efforts do. The main thematic problem with the album is that it tells the story of—and offers insight in to—a relationship that’s simply not that interesting. While many of Lennon’s songs appear to be quite heartfelt, songs such as “Grow Old with Me” and even “Nobody Told Me” tend to end up resorting to lyrical clichés and common musical riffs. Still, beneath the clichés and standard sounds that run throughout these songs, there are nevertheless suggestions—especially in “Nobody Told Me”—of a growing sense of a changing and downright weird and postmodern world appearing in Lennon’s world as well as a sense not only of destruction and drastic change lurking on the horizon, as suggested in “Borrowed Time”.
While the album paints a portrait of a rather mellow and peaceful John Lennon, and a warm and loving marriage between he and Ono, it’s hard to keep from wondering where Lennon might have gone both personally and musically from here. I can imagine an alternate world where Lennon was not killed and this album, perhaps delivered in a more perfected form, was released in the early 1980s and served as something of a conclusion to Lennon’s domestic and personal bliss and, hence, lead to a decidedly new musical form on Lennon’s part. Lennon was simply too tuned-in and dynamic to have continued to limit himself to such familial and decidedly pleasant themes and his relationship with Ono was far too complicated to have maintained the state of happiness they were enjoying at the time. Something surely would have changed on Lennon’s part and new musical and personal avenues would have needed to be explored. However, that was not to be. All we have are some tantalizing hints as to where it might have lead. James Fleming
It’s weird. Michael Jackson passes and then Sony suddenly reveals that he’s got albums worth of unreleased gold ready to be unleashed for some proposed posthumous moneymaking. Similarly, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur consistently prove that dead rappers are as prolific as living ones (no disrespect intended), each offering grieving fans yet another glimpse into their ample hip hop gifts on release after release. Yet one of the most important artists of the last 50 years is murdered by a madman for no discernible reason and those who worshipped the sonic ground John Lennon walked upon got this? A half-baked collection of outtakes, demos, and half-completed aural doodles? What gives?
True, in the two years after his death, his widow okayed the superior to Shaved Fish greatest hits package The John Lennon Collection and then appeased the masses with the somewhat better than Double Fantasy work Milk and Honey. While Ms. Ono would again take up half the LP, her presence would be overshadowed by the novelty of new Lennon songs some four years removed from his passing. With pleasant entries like “I’m Stepping Out”, “Nobody Told Me”, and the prophetic “Borrowed Time”, it remains a strong postscript to an otherwise untimely career cut-off.
So what, exactly, is the rationale behind the release of Menlove Ave.? The chance to hear Lennon in his raucous “Lost Weekend” phase again struggling through another collection of vintage covers—or in the case of “Rock and Roll People” and “Here We Go Again”, vintage sounding originals? Or perhaps to once again lament the overproduction prowess of collaborator Phil Spector and wonder why the starker versions of what would become Walls and Bridges’ staples weren’t used? Who knows. One thing’s for certain, the rewards one can reap here are indeed limited. Even more troubling is the notion that, as the Anthology “reunion” would later confirm - there are/were lots of unheard Lennon demos sitting around, waiting to be discovered.
Menlove Ave. is not a bad album per se, just a wholly unnecessary one. Last time anyone checked, few were clamoring for more from this phase in his career. Rock ‘n’ Roll was one of his worst selling efforts, and Walls and Bridges needed two hit singles to stifle its irrelevancy. This Lennon is a long way from Plastic Ono Band, or Imagine. He’s no longer reading fans the Some Time in New York City riot act or playing Nutopian mind games. Menlove Ave. ‘s mediocrity can be traced back to its source—Lennon didn’t “love” making music as much as being a father. He didn’t adore the limelight and long to stay in it. Even worse, if he really wanted to reinvent himself as an artist for a new age and upcoming millennium, a psychotic with a JD Salinger obsession cut said opportunity painfully short.
As a result, we were stuck with this. Even after the vaults were once again cleaned out for another hastily put together set of hits, misses, and aural transgressions (the somewhat interesting John Lennon Anthology), members of the devoted have the seemingly pointless Menlove Ave. to contend with. It seems a sad way to celebrate and send-off a true legend, a musical myth that continues to resonate some 50 years after first hitting the scene. Then again, Lennon was never that devoted to the notion of his continued stardom. In that regard, something like Menlove Ave. seems somehow apropos. Bill Gibron
// Notes from the Road
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