In the history of popular music, there has perhaps been no more divisive a figure than Yoko Ono. Unfairly blamed for the breakup of one of the most beloved bands of all time and viewed by some as an untalented hack who hitched her star to one of the most famous musicians ever, Ono found herself out of favor with the general public almost from the start.
But those who’ve looked past the tawdry rumors and vicious, often racially insensitive critiques have found an artist pushing the boundaries of music, both avant-garde and popular. Influencing vocalists from Björk to Diamanda Galás, her early recordings featured an array of sounds rarely heard emanating from human throats, let alone associated with an artist formerly in the most commercially popular and successful band on the planet.
Her propensity to explore the outer reaches of the human voice found many critics deriding her style as little more than unlistenable noise and screaming. But further study of these early works shows an artist in top form, exploring the possibilities afforded by her instrument in much the same manner as Albert Ayler and other avant-garde jazz musicians. By pushing herself into uncharted territory, she freed herself from the often-restrictive bonds of pop music formula.
This approach brought with it an unparalleled sense of liberation, pushing beyond the known into utterly new and different territory. Much as the jazz avant-gardists sought to tear down the walls of more commercially minded popular jazz to better reflect the society in which they lived, so too did Ono seek to put a voice to the tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s by no means easy listening, but it is art in its purest, most raw form.
On this new pair of singles with Antony Hegarty and John Zorn, respectively, Ono showcases the two disparate ends of her vocal performance spectrum. On “I Love You Earth”, she cedes the majority of the song to Hegarty, making it sound more like an Antony & the Johnsons track than a true Antony/Yoko collaboration. When Ono does enter, her mere presence possess a confidence and assuredness of purpose that, despite her heavily accented phrasing and pitch troubles, wrapped in a sheen of reverb, proves a compelling sparring partner for Hegarty.
Given the tonality of her voice and her relative disregard for pitch, however, ballads have never been her strong suit. Paired with Hegarty, a master balladeer, her voice sounds all the weaker — no match for the subtle nuance of phrasing and languid, mellifluous approach of Hegarty. That said, Ono displays a masterful sense of when to step back and let her collaborators take over.
Only when they begin to sing in attempted harmony does the full nature of Ono’s shortcomings as a vocalist come fully to the fore. Hers is such an idiosyncratic instrument that it is best served within a solo context rather than as a duet partner. The purity of Hegarty’s delivery, when paired with Ono, only serves to highlight much of what her detractors usually bring up when discussing why they simply can’t accept her as a vocalist. When she avoids close harmony and rises above Hegarty’s range, her voice comes through more confident and assured, avoiding the dissonance of their closer pairing.
“I’m Going Away Smiling” features a solo piano and vocal performance by Hegarty, a melancholy take on the track that appeared on Ono’s album Between My Head And The Sky. Where hers played with the deeply personal feelings of loss with regard to her late husband, Hegarty’s plays a bit more universal with the themes of sadness and loss. With each displaying a similarly sparse arrangement, their respective emotional components make for a nearly impossible comparison. Hers is deeply personal, having lived the lyrics. His is an interpretation and, while achingly lovely, does not possess the devastating emotional and contextual heft of the original.
On “Blink”, avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn proves an ideal match for Ono’s more experimental tendencies. As a vocalist, she is better suited to the more extreme ranges of the human voice, creating a cacophony of shrieks and squeals that perfectly compliment the equally extreme nature of Zorn’s approach to the saxophone and music in general. By pushing their respective instruments beyond the bounds of traditional performance, they create a fascinating mix of sounds that manage to sound simultaneously very human and very not. Finding harmony in the uglier elements of the avant-garde, their duet proves an uneasy, though fascinating listen.
Theirs is a thrillingly visceral pairing that, at only three minutes, is more an unfair tease of what further exploration of this partnership might one day afford. Fans of uneasy listening will find much to like as “Blink” finds Ono returning to the sounds she explored at greater length on her earliest recordings. With just Zorn as her furious collaborator, it’s an exhilarating performance that stands in sharp contrast to the subtle beauty of her collaboration with Hegarty. A yin and yang, these singles represent the two sides of her musical persona. Leaving each separate, there’s no attempt to reconcile the two, an approach that suits her and her collaborators exceptionally well.