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John Lennon 101: The Solo Discography

John Lennon would have been 80 years old today. After the Beatles, Lennon created a treasured solo catalogue, and we take you through the history and the music album by album.

Double Fantasy (1980)

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It’s impossible not to listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy without feeling a tremendous sense of foreboding, if not downright fear and loathing. The album was recorded during the late summer and early fall of 1980, shortly after Lennon emerged from his five years of self-imposed reclusion, and was released on the 17th of November of the same year, only three weeks before Lennon’s murder. Lennon signed a copy of the album for Mark David Chapman only hours before Chapman shot him to death. Our knowledge of what happened to Lennon in the weeks following the release of the album, of course, strongly influences the way we now listen to it, understand it, and evaluate it.

Whenever I listen to it — and I’ve given it a solid 40 or 50 listenings over the past years — I can’t help but think, “he has no idea what’s coming to him, does he?” Listening to Double Fantasy is like watching or reading Hamlet for the second or any subsequent time; you listen with the tragic realization that the bright, brilliant man you’re listening to is soon about to die. Hence the album now contains a measure of pathos far beyond what Lennon must have intended. When you separate the album from the context that came to surround it, Double Fantasy is a decidedly uplifting, contemplative, and ultimately peaceful and forward-looking album that marked, at least for a matter of a few weeks, an entirely new self-perspective and self-awareness on Lennon’s part.

Interestingly, Double Fantasy was not an overwhelming critical success when it first appeared. While some critics praised its quality and Lennon’s songwriting and performance abilities, some critics found the album to be self-indulgent, thematically domestic and plain, too Ono heavy, and a bit too poppy and mainstream. These complaints were not unfounded. The album certainly lacks Lennon’s past displays of irony, absurdist humor, political awareness, and willingness to engage in lyrical experimentation. Further, the strongest songs on the album are those penned by Lennon rather than Ono.

The album, while thematically interesting, also lacks much in the way of structure. Moreover, while the album offers some terrific insight into the Lennon the world had been missing for five years, some songs, particularly “I’m Losing You”, seem to ultimately serve as public apologies to Ono for Lennon’s past marital misdeeds. Further, much of the music shows the influence of new wave music — something which Lennon admitted was an influence — and sounds less like an attempt to make new wave music new again but, rather, Lennon’s attempt to appeal to listeners accustomed to a different type of sound. The album’s greatest fault, then, is the decidedly uncharacteristic lack of confidence and willingness to experiment that Lennon projects throughout it.

However, that’s not to suggest that the album doesn’t have its share of strengths. “Watching the Wheels,” for all of its domesticity, stands as one of Lennon’s strongest and most self-reflective, not to mention catchy, songs. For all of its underlying self-loathing, “I’m Losing You”, is certainly heartfelt and nevertheless quite moving as is “Beautiful Boy”, Lennon’s ode to his son Sean. “Just Like Starting Over”, is among Lennon’s warmest and most joyful recordings and “Woman”, which is a decidedly pleasant and mature sequel, of sorts, to the Beatles’ “Girl”. While the album does not fully come together or function well as a whole, it nevertheless presents us with a sense of a new, more reflective, and peaceful John Lennon and, ultimately, a now heartbreaking suggestion of the sort of musical artist Lennon might have become if he had lived longer and come to confront the electro, synthetic, poppy and decidedly ironic and weird music of the decade to come. — James Fleming

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These essays were originally published in a six-part series in November 2010.

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