The first time I visited New York City, back in the ’90s, I felt like I was being followed around the city by ghosts, or rather following them around. Not dead people, mind you, but the people, living or fictional that I associate with New York City, a city that before this had mainly existed for me in my imagination. Woody Allen characters were chief among them, and Seinfeld characters, the Ramones and various hip-hop legends. But the main two entities were John & Yoko and Sonic Youth. I’d walk past streets that reminded me of Sonic Youth, by allusion or feeling. I happened upon the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, after walking past the Dakota, and the same day went to a retrospective Yoko Ono art exhibit, Yes, that blew me away. That exhibit endeared me to Ono, told the story of her artistic personality in a way that all of the stereotypes and gossip about her never did. When I first heard Onobox, the retrospective boxset of her music, I felt similarly, realizing the diversity of ideas and sounds contained within her vision.
At the start of YokoKimThurston, a collaboration among Ono and Thurston Gordon and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, she comes out shrieking, sounding more like the atonal figure that’s the center of the stereotype of what her music is like. Sonic Youth come out similarly, with noisy rock guitar that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s listened to their discography. The album does change up from that point, but not greatly. If anyone tried to imagine what a Ono/Gordon/Moore collaboration might sound like, they would come up with something exactly like this. It’s as if they’re improvising together, and each relying on old tricks. That first track, “I Missed You Listening”, keeps seeming like it’s getting somewhere, that it will center on a real idea, but it doesn’t. The album as a whole is similar to the circling storm that’s on the cover; it circles, sits and gobbles you up, but it never really evolves. The 14-minute final track, “Early in the Morning”, tries for a big, brutal finale, but even while they’re screaming and wailing on their guitars it seems more like stasis than climax or release.
After the first track, the trio for a while gets more into poetry/music pieces. Sometimes the words they say are obvious and uninteresting – the collection of fears on “Running the Risk”, which often seems like they played a word-association game and recorded it, in one take – but occasionally can captivate a bit more, like with Ono’s whispered/breathed vocals on “I Never Told You Did I?”. She seems really adamant about something – it’s taken her breath away – but what it is, is a mystery. And she breaks down at one point, while a strange voice echoes in the back. That voice might be Gordon’s, or at least, on many of the album’s best moments her voice plays counterpoint to Ono’s, seeming like a co-conspirator, like the devil on her shoulder, or like the sound of secrets which keep making their way into her ears.
“Mirror Mirror”, the fourth track of six, might be the most bewildering. Ono starts, “I’m nervous every day / every minute / but at the same time I’m an extremely relaxed person”, and continues to sing sentiments that sound like she’s reading her diary aloud or answering interview questions, while Moore and Gordon crumple up paper in the background. Then Gordon starts talking about how calcium is good for the body and Ono starts heavy panting…and you start to think, “are they just doing whatever they feel like?”, knowing that’s the pedestrian complaint against conceptual and avant-garde art, the sort of talk you usually would discount.
But here it’s hard to know what the point is, other than these giants of underground New York music coming together. It’s right there in the album’s name, the way it sets their names up to tell you this is a happening of important people. It’s why the album seemed like it’d be exciting, because of their own legacies. Essentially, the album cannot live up to that expectation, because they don’t seem to be trying hard, more in love with the fact that they’re making an album together. It is sometimes interesting, but almost on accident. It mostly makes you think, “”why was I so excited to hear this?”