The second solo album released by John Lennon, Imagine, may also be his most well-known, and certainly its title track is the most identifiable solo Lennon tune. Released in 1971, just one year after John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, these ten tracks seem to define Lennon as a solo artist more than any other. Produced by Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Spector, the album also features George Harrison on several songs.
Beginning with the title track, “Imagine”, Lennon immediately sets the tone for much of the rest of the album. As ubiquitous as this song is, “Imagine” still manages to surprise and deliver its message of peace in a sincere and frankly, touching manner. It is a song that could have easily devolved into a cloying, sentimental message that fades away over time. Yet, Lennon’s words cut away any maudlin sentiments instantly: “Imagine there’s no heaven / it’s easy if you try / no hell below us / above us only sky.” There is a nakedness to these lyrics, as well as a simple, repeating piano line throughout, that leaves only the core of what Lennon is trying to get across, and in turn, makes it that much more effective.
The third track on the album, “Jealous Guy”, is one of Lennon’s strongest songs. The music is comprised of a beautiful melody that, in many ways, runs counter to the song’s lyrics. Lennon lends additional emotional weight to the song by surrounding his apologetic words in this softly sung tune. Some lines are striking in their simplicity and vulnerability, none more so than “I was feeling insecure / you might not love me anymore.” Lennon has always had a gift for honesty in his lyrics, and “Jealous Guy” is another wonderful example of this.
Perhaps the most analyzed song on the album is Lennon’s scathing Paul McCartney-directed “How Do You Sleep?”. Lennon was responding to McCartney’s second album, Ram, in which he felt there were various digs at both himself and Ono. While McCartney denied most of these accusations, he did admit to certain lines being about Lennon. Lennon answers by making direct reference to McCartney through his own compositions, such as Sgt. Pepper’s, “Yesterday”, and “Another Day”. In using McCartney’s songs somewhat against him, Lennon expresses a level of outrage that only hints at the two’s problems. Although they would later reconcile, How Do You Sleep?” stills stands as one of Lennon’s most mocking and caustic songs and serves as an honest account of his feelings at the time, as admittedly misplaced or scornful though they may be.
Imagine also contains two very political compositions, especially as it relates to war, “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama” and “Gimme Some Truth”. Lennon’s passionate anti-war stance and his vehement opposition could not be more apparent here (“Well, I don’t wanna be a soldier mama / I don’t wanna die”). The former track is a bluesy number that repeatedly makes a case against war. He likens being a soldier to being a crybaby rich man and a lying lawyer, among others, while in “Gimme Some Truth”, he wastes no time in calling out Nixon (“No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dick”) and others he views in similar terms. Both are driving, noisy rock songs that are as lyrically unforgiving as it gets. For all of Lennon’s gentleness in his love songs, his political ones never pull any punches, and these are no exception.
In what may be the most gorgeous moment on the album, Lennon’s “Oh My Love” is as lovely as any song he’s written. It is musically and vocally reminiscent of his haunting “Julia” from The Beatles, yet still feels completely new. Influenced by his time in therapy, it speaks of dreams and opening the mind, all the while professing a newfound clarity. It’s a beautiful song and one that shows off Lennon’s voice at his best.
Much like “Oh My Love” was affected by therapy, “How?” is a similar case. The lyrics could very readily read as some modern self-help mumbo jumbo (“How can I have feelings / when my feelings have always been denied? / oh no, oh no”), but Lennon never really lets the song reach that point. Again, much is in the completely genuine delivery of the words, perhaps one of Lennon’s greatest gifts.
The album is rounded out by a couple of classic rock songs, “Crippled Inside” and “It’s So Hard” that call to mind some of the Beatles’ early rock covers in their energy and Lennon’s obvious enthusiasm in performing them. Closing the whole thing out, “Oh, Yoko!” is another rollicking tune that’s equal parts sweet ode to Ono and fun sing-a-long.
In the end, Imagine stands as an album of fully realized songs that run the gamut of Lennon’s songwriting abilities. While it is his most commercially successful album, it also contains some of his most critically praised songs. “Imagine” may sometimes overshadow much of Lennon’s solo work, but Imagine is as complete a statement as he ever made. — J.M. Suarez