Like it or not, 2009’s Between My Head and the Sky was not a fluke for the latest incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band. Yoko Ono, together with her son Sean Lennon and bandmates Yuka Honda, Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu and Yuko Araki are going full speed ahead with their multi-colored follow-up Take Me to the Land of Hell. But nailing down a description of the sound is about as tough as partitioning credit. There are so many individuals involved that it’s not always clear just who is steering the ship. In addition to the Plastic Ono Band, who serve as their own producers, the sound of Hell gets boomeranged around by many a guest star. Ono’s got fringe jazz musicians with Julian Lage, Nels Cline and Erik Friedlander. There are some old school names involved like Lenny Kravitz and Ad-Rock & Mike D (of Beastie Boys fame). There’s also the head of tUnE-yArDs, Questlove, Andrew Wyatt and almost twenty others. I know that Yoko Ono has professed a love for indie rock in the recent past. But on paper, this is borderline crazy.
Crazier still is how uncluttered Take Me to the Land of Hell comes out sounding. Each track is a musically stylistic island, but none so far apart that you risk drowning between them. Yoko Ono’s voice is not always mixed as a focal point and there are many instances where you can say her voice is not the driving component behind the song. As it is, her voice jogs back and forth steadily between spoken soliloquies and the histrionic singing upon which she has built her musical reputation. Her lyrics tend to play with the abstract and surreal life, to ends that are probably only known to her. But we all know she can say what she means and mean what she says with no confusion. The midtempo grind of “Cheshire Cat Cry” is one such example for her to preach one of her favorite topics: “Stop the violence! Stop all wars!” She leaves room for cynicism to go alongside the idealism by evenly stating “We the expendable people of the United States / Hold these dreams to be self-destructive.”
Take Me to the Land of Hell can also be playful in a creative way, or creative in a playful way, depending on how you like to phrase it. “Tabetai”, the collaboration with tUnE-yArDs, is a brief swipe of ’80s urban art-synth tripping over the fuzzed-out bass of modern indie at Yoko Ono’s intersection. And she really does start the song with “Fried chicken / Chocolate pudding”. A quick turn down Tin Pan Alley gives you “Leaving Tim”, a tonky jazz-lite number where the marital (?) discourse involved belies the easy bounce of the music. “You son of Dracula! / I’m not your Elektra!” Ad-Rock & Mike D lay the groundwork for “Bad Dancer”, a hip-flinching cross between ’90s club beats and ’70s funk. And in case you’re curious, Ono’s use of the word “bad” is the good kind – like being “bad to the bone”. “I’m a bad dancer / A busy bouncer / Never touch the ground / Never make a sound”. I myself was hoping for an I-enjoy-being-terrible story a la Frank Zappa’s “Dancing Fool”.
But Hell is more gentle and sensitive than silly. It’s also spends more time plunging into new territory than being gentle and sensitive. The Flips ballad “There’s No Goodbye Between Us” and the chamber pop track “Watching the Dawn” are delightfully offset by “Moonbeams” and “7th Floor”. While the former’s impressionistic slow crawl gets the album going, the latter rides an electro-freakout where a scarf moves from person to person in Ono’s nightmare: “Don’t cut my hands – can’t strangle you / Don’t cut my legs – can’t walk out on you / Don’t cut my tongue – can’t spit on you / Don’t cut me off – I’ll kill you”. Damn, she was still giving peace a chance just five tracks ago. The rest of the album soars as much as it haunts, like the skyscraping “N.Y. Noodle Town” and the eerily soft title track. But what halted me was “Little Boy Blue Your Daddy’s Gone”. The Plastic Ono Band’s rhythm section pulses with a futuristic glow. There’s an irresistible triplet figure first played by the bass, later appears on the keyboard, then shows up one last time as a series of “la’s”. Ono lets her voice get carried away over the track’s outro, though a reliance on the backing tracks would have gone further.
And where Ono ends and the rest of the crew begins will always remain hazy. I’ve seen some heavily guarded critics grow reluctant to award points to the likes of Confessions on a Dancefloor and Golden Greats, thinking that Madonna and Ian Brown respectively shouldn’t get any more kudos than the studio engineers. It’s a rather transparent tactic, one that displays how uncomfortable they are with the admiration of an album. I can see Take Me to the Land of Hell tripping up the same people. On the one hand, she’s Yoko Ono. On the other hand, she’s 80 years old and pulling off head-thrashers like “Shine, Shine”. Which one sounds like a better rationale for pure enjoyment?