[25 October 2010]
It’s a sad fact of rock ‘n’ roll that we want our singers tortured, wrecked over fame, money, drugs, sex, or (ideally) the consequences of expecting one in exchange for another. Jimmy Buffet fans aside, nobody wants to hear some happy dude singing about how great he’s got it. The struggle is essential to the song. (If Mick Jagger could have gotten satisfaction, what was he doing reinterpreting the blues?)
Enter Sean Lennon and girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl with Acoustic Sessions, prancing arm in arm under the strange moniker the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. It’s an apropos name, as the undead legend of his father’s fang-bearing craft follows Lennon in every walk of life. For him, it’s nothing to get hung up about. Rather, the younger Lennon has enjoyed a wealth of comforts throughout his 35 years: financial security for his great-grandchildren, visible best buds like Lindsay Lohan, not being Julian Lennon.
If you’re reading because you’ve memorized every rattle and hum of Daddy’s band’s unparalleled canon, my title obligates me to inform you that that well is sufficiently parched, so come prepared to enjoy Sean on his own terms. You could incessantly make comparisons, or trace the earthy folk to coffeehouse daffodils Simon and Garfunkel. But Lennon is undoubtedly exhausted from distancing himself, and believe it or not, even rock critics need a break sometimes.
For all the blog-rock songsters emoting in stereo online, it’s hard to find one on Sean Lennon’s level. He’s got a striking ability to conjure images with a well-placed instrument, whether it’s the vibes soothing a poor little rich kid in “Robot Boy”, or that accordion murmuring through littered EU streets in “Jardin du Luxembourg”. He’s also quick with a clever play on clichés. On “Shroedinger’s Cat”, he compares himself to a lone tree crashing silently in the woods: “I can’t be sure that I exist when you’re not around”.
But his faults are his own, too, and they’re here in droves. He’s frequently guilty of trying to stuff seven melodies into one song, as opener “Lavender Road” stalls in procrastination mode. Ideas continue to sprout as the night wears on and eyes burn red with productivity, but instead of developing these worthy expositions, he’s casting them all as minor characters in a go-nowhere movie. Though presented as coy, innocent little things, the melodies are often too busy to be memorable, as if Lennon and Muhl had several unfinished demos for each of Acoustic Sessions’ nine tracks. This is the Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger’s great trick: while lyrically nimble, Acoustic Sessions first appears about as musically barren and matter-of-fact as the title would imply. However, upon further listen, it is positively maddening in its circular complexity. When things finally wind down, in the chilly doo-wop of “This World Was Made for Men”, our relief looks like his success.
This is to say nothing of this animal’s other half. The disc’s breeziness should come as no surprise to Lennon’s patient followers (this is the dude’s third album in 12 years), but it’s with Muhl’s harmonizing that the songs really turn to wallpaper. She doesn’t have a brazen enough presence to pull Acoustic Sessions off trajectory—outside of two solo lines, she’s keeping her thumbs warm on a nearby stool. Regardless, there seems to be a latent effect of including your girlfriend on the process, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Lennon and Muhl wrote the album together, and while both eagerly insist it was an enjoyable experience, it sounds like a couple of nights they’ll remember more for the memories of distraction than for the songs. It feels slightly sexist to say the influential girlfriend dragged him down, but Lennon just seems blasé here. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.
For whatever reason, the melodies on Acoustic Sessions don’t do justice to the words, which win with winking similes and blunt surrealism without sounding like Lennon pressed “COPY” on one of dad’s old lyric sheets. In singing “Wake me in a thousand years / When computers can shed tears” on “Dark Matter”, he comes off like a sign-wielding Angryman who wants to go back to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Anyone who’s been through a nasty breakup has felt the same way, being the only one blind to how everything’s changed forever. And in describing the duty of “walking around in another man’s shoes” on “Rainbows in Gasoline”, it’s hard not to think of you-know-who. Meanwhile, “Dark Matter” is simply beautiful, with Charlotte’s rare declarations punctuated by sharp finger licks. And only the most foolish of humans should bother resisting that insidious melody on “Jardin Du Luxembourg”. Aside from those moments, poised to lodge themselves firmly in any skull, Lennon’s fingers are too skittish on the frets to land on something good for long.
All in all, Acoustic Sessions is pleasant but not entirely memorable. Fans of Belle & Sebastian and Lennon’s last LP (the superb 2006 effort Friendly Fire) will be intrigued, but whether they’ll dig it is another story. The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger could do with a couple more strokes of tension, but the music’s insouciant nature puts the struggle squarely on the listener. The fleeting nature of the songs is precisely what will keep listeners giving the Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger fourth and fifth chances. Hiding behind those glasses and a beard just thick enough to disguise, Lennon isn’t giving up that cozy headspace; in creating his glass onion, he makes listeners do the struggling instead. Meanwhile, like the frustratingly cool ex, Muhl will just keep on cooing in the background until one of us “gets it” or gives up.