In the time between Julian Lennon’s fifth and sixth albums, you could have earned at least three undergraduate degrees. Before that, Lennon’s fans had to wait seven years for Photograph Smile. In the ‘90s, such a pause was unheard of unless you were Pink Floyd. Nowadays, bands and solo artists alike go for seven years or more between albums and barely anyone notices. But one disturbing trend that accompanies these hiatuses is the lack of growth that comes with them. For instance, when the Stone Roses were holed up for five years while making their second album, said second album sounded like a band that underwent significant change. Now with 2011’s Everything Changes and its 2013 re-release with two extra tracks, hardly anything has changed musically for Lennon since 1998’s Photograph Smile. He’s still lyrically preoccupied with the state of the world, as he was on “How Many Times” and “Saltwater”. He still drags his choruses around the block just a few too many times, as he did on Photograph Smile and on the song he co-wrote with the Smithereens. He still sings in the pure, soft voice that he’s favored since 1991’s Help Yourself. About the only thing that has noticeably changed is the tempo. On Photograph Smile, Lennon balanced his midtempo ballads with upbeat numbers. On Everything Changes, it’s almost all about the midtempo lighter-wavers with compressed dynamic range.
But if we ignore Lennon’s startling lack of musical change over the last 13 to 15 years, we remember that an album is only as good as the songs and performances it holds inside. So it’s only fair to look at Everything Changes in as much as a vacuum as we can allow ourselves. But as I was typing that, the following lyric from “Disconnected” came through my speakers; “A homeless man can be the wisest of kings.” I was just about to give props to Julian Lennon for his melodic gifts, the one component to his sound that doesn’t make you totally forget these songs. It’s telling that Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel chose “Saltwater” for an instrumental cover in 1997, that the melody could work so well without any vocals. Indeed, to a reluctantly lesser extent, the same holds true for Everything Changes. If you are thinking that Lennon needs collaborative help to put his melodies into a broader context, he’s way ahead of you. Lennon has been collaborating with others on his songwriting for a long time. But instead of an expanded song, we are left with expanded sound; sturdy guitars and pianos, intermittent trippy backwards effects and a competent rhythm section.
The listener’s attention, for this re-release, is naturally directed to the new second track, “Someday”. There are three reasons for this: 1) it’s upbeat, 2) it begins by lyrically citing “Baby You’re A Rich Man” and 3) it features Steven Tyler. By the end of the song, when all three of these traits are overlapping, it’s actually not as ugly as it seems. The fact that Lennon singing, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” while Tyler Aerosmiths all over his end of the mix doesn’t add up to be a train wreck is a subtle achievement. But “Someday” and the dramatic doomsday-esque “Always” are the only songs with built-in climaxes. As the sound climbs higher and higher on the latter, Lennon calls out thatm “Hate will multiply / The universe will cry”. It’s a heady six-minute listen. “Sometimes this world’s so cold / Where is all this hatred coming from?” This fatalistic attitude can be found in the far mellower title track: “Tired of this world / All the good that we’ve done never seems to get through”. But when he sings a heart wrenching lyric on “Hold On” – “Can it be real that I have lost a friend?” – I realize that I never knew what the stakes were to begin with. This is what bland arrangements do to such earnest lyrics.
As much as I try to avoid comparisons to Lennon’s past work, my gripes with Everything Changes are more-or-less the same gripes I have with Photograph Smile; too much repetition without development, decent songs that have been smoothed over too many times, lots of melody but no human spark to carry them. I think Julian Lennon might still have a Mr. Jordan (his late ‘80s Bowie-esque unmannered change in direction) within him, but I doubt he’ll ever getting around to writing and recording it. The man is 50 now, and whether we like it or not, Everything Changes is the most change we’re ever going to get out of him.