[13 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Like his half-brother, Sean, Julian Lennon has managed to develop an indelible musical career, despite the weighty pressure and skepticism that comes with upholding such a historic musical lineage. And like his brother, Julian was born with a voice very much akin to their father, former Beatle John Lennon. It is a voice that can flutter between a low-tremulous range, an uncomplicated whisper, and a meaty yelp, almost seamlessly.
Now, in 2009, Noble Rot is reissuing three of Julian Lennon’s original releases on Atlantic Records that have since gone out of print: The Secret Value of Daydreaming, Mr. Jordan, and Help Yourself. On the first of these, 1986’s The Secret Value of Daydreaming, Julian delves into a stream of unbridled confession. With Phil Ramone at the record’s helm, Lennon presents the listener with a foray of perfectly refined melodies. These intricately crafted songs thump with a righteous exuberance, like the album’s second track, “Stick Around”, which utilizes a buff funk groove, and an assertive Julian, debating whether he should “stay” when “nothing is clear” in matters of his own heart.
On the tuneful “Want Your Body”, Lennon wrestles with both physical and mental appropriations—he “want(s) your body” and “want(s) your mind”, despite how “unkind” people are. This helpless desire is further echoed on the pensive “You Don’t Have To Tell Me”, where Julian mutters, “You don’t have to tell me / You don’t have to cry / You don’t have to tell me / What you’re feeling inside”.
The rest of the musical landscape here is filled with Lennon’s divergent generic interests. On “Everyday”, he hints to a grounded Bluesy sensibility, while “You Got What You Want” perpetuates a percussion-led ‘80s pop style.
Following this came 1989’s Mr. Jordan, an album that many at the time believed helped secure the artist’s credibility. Seemingly ready to experiment, Lennon drafted the help of music producer Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Bon Jovi, Elton John, and Jeff Beck), and a new songwriting partner, John McCurry. As such, the resulting tracks echo a shrewder individual than the free-wheeling lyrical assertions of the former teen idol. When Lennon sings on the opening track that he will “use his fatal charms” to get his way, the listener cannot help but assume that Lennon is parodying (and perhaps even exercising himself from) the wet, and tortured image of his previous release.
Skirting between meaty chords, energetic funk, and blues, Lennon uses this accessible territory as a forum to exploit the deeper tones of his voice. Less nasal than before, Julian weaves his way through playful numbers such as “Mother Mary” and the tender ballad “Angillette”, with ease. On the latter, Lennon resorts to a brutal honesty, expressing his despair over his suicidal lover, when he pleads: “Can’t you save her Lord / ’Cause I just seem to miss?”
The mature, and honest anguish of “Angillette” is answered rather auspiciously in the title of his next release, Help Yourself. The most accomplished of the three albums, Help Yourself exudes the charm, and sophistication synonymous with an artist who is relevant, and equally confident of his abilities. Indeed, instead of battling his inherent musical roots, Lennon channels the sound and soul of his late father. Rather then feeling ashamed of the Beatlesque, Lennon revels in its place.
The best of these resulting songs is “Saltwater”, a potent and unapologetic cry for ecological responsibility, which is undoubtedly reminiscent of his father’s “Imagine” days. Almost as impressive is “Other Side of Town”, a beautiful number with Blue Nile singer Paul Buchanan on guest vocals. Still, the best cuts on the album are the ones that hark to the angry solo work of his father, such as “Listen”, where Lennon forcefully protests, “Don’t make me listen / ‘Cause it brings me down / You’re such a clown”, “You think you know what makes me happy / You think you know what makes me cry / Well from the horse’s mouth it lies”.
The rest of the record is equally endearing. “Rebel King” and “New Physics Rant” are playful works that Lennon pulls off respectfully.
Spanning both a political realm, and the intimate, the last of these three re-issues,Help Yourself has the ability to induce bouts of rebel-rousing frenzy, and poignant moments of confession.
For those who are unfamiliar with Julian Lennon’s oeuvre, I suggest that you begin with the last of these works. Not only is it the most accessible of the bunch, it is also the most aspirational, and on that rare occasion, even transcendental.