For more than half a century, Yoko Ono has been the punching bag for narrow-minded rock music fans everywhere. Her relationship with John Lennon was a source of great controversy, with Beatles fans unfairly accusing the experimental artist of breaking up the most popular band in the world. Being married to one of the most famous musicians on the planet opened her up to great scrutiny, made all the more complicated because her music and art were hardly mainstream fodder. Over the years, Ono – before and after Lennon’s 1980 death – has become a trailblazer and cult artist, influencing everyone from Kathleen Hanna to Kim Gordon, from the B-52’s to Ben Gibbard – the latter who curated this new tribute album.
Ocean Child isn’t the first Ono tribute album – Every Man Has a Woman was released in 1984 and includes performances from Elvis Costello, Eddie Money, and Roseanne Cash, among others – but a 2022 tribute has the potential to bear more fruit. As alternative and cult artists have gained more of a foothold on the music landscape, Ono’s songs seem more relevant and open to interpretation than ever. To that end, Gibbard assembled an eclectic group of artists to cover Ono’s songs, with some making them more accessible and others leaning into her innate, lovable weirdness.
Released on February 18 – Ono’s 89th birthday – Ocean Child begins with Sharon Van Etten’s shimmering take on “Toyboat”, taking the song’s playful innocence and placing it in a sort of dreamy, majestic framework. Van Etten’s interpretation doesn’t so much transform the tune as build on it. Yo La Tengo and David Byrne team up for a soothing cover of “Who Has Seen the Wind”, an Ono composition made somewhat famous as the b-side of “Instant Karma!”. Byrne instills the performance with the kind of gospel components he’s used on everything from Talking Heads’ True Stories to the Big Love soundtrack.
Gibbard enlists his band, Death Cab for Cutie, on a cover of “Waiting for the Sunrise”, keeping the song’s original simplicity intact and infusing it with some engaging power pop. Likewise, U.S. Girls tackle the bluesy “Born in a Prison” and don’t stray too far from the source material, adding just the right touches of psychedelia to give the song new life while still staying relatively faithful to the 1972 Plastic Ono Band original.
Elsewhere, it’s refreshing to see artists put their definitive stamp on the songs, as Jay Som does with an intimate, bedroom pop take on “Growing Pain”. Stephin Merritt also accomplishes that with a haunting, quasi-torch song interpretation of “Listen, the Snow Is Falling”. You can’t fault musicians for attempting to make Ono’s compositions more accessible, but when an artist makes a song truly their own, or better yet, pushes the envelope further – the results can be stunning. The steady punk vibes of “No, No, No” become typically chaotic in the hands of Deerhoof. It’s one of those instances where you feel like the song was specifically written with them in mind, even though the original song was released a dozen years before they were formed.
It’s interesting when some dial things down, as Japanese Breakfast does with a vocal and piano take on “No One Sees Me Like You Do”. Distilling the track down to its essence goes a long way toward seeing a clear path to Ono’s often ignored compositional gifts. The simplicity of the new arrangement is nothing short of a revelation. Amber Coffman, formerly of Dirty Projectors, does the same thing with “Run Run Run”. She gives the song a simple arrangement, with her vocals – accompanied only by electric guitar – eventually multitracked and adding subtle depth.
Ocean Child may not move Yoko Ono’s songs into the mainstream, but if it only introduces a modest audience to her music, Ben Gibbard’s efforts will have been well worth it. This record gives plenty of much-needed exposure to the songs of one of our most misunderstood and unfairly ignored artists.