Yoko Ono has always occupied a strange position in the cultural and musical fabric of the world. Her name remains linked with John Lennon’s nearly four decades after his death, and the attention allotted to her in popular spheres is often limited to punchlines, whether concerning her relationship with The Beatles or her own unique, genre-spanning art. Who is Yoko Ono as an artist? She is a singer, a poet, a filmmaker; she is performative, raw, avant-garde and experimental.
Warzone, like much of Ono’s work, is a difficult album to tackle. It’s comprised of reimaginings of songs originally released much earlier in Ono’s career. Here: a collection of screams and howls (“Why?”), there: a songbook of tender, stripped-down poetry (“Teddy Bear,” “Now or Never”). It’s as mishmashed and puzzling as the rest of her catalogue, but also very straightforward in its messages. Ono’s sentiments — ones of peace, of empowerment, of a grounded and very present nostalgia — are plain from the get-go, here more than ever in songs like “Woman Power” and “I Love You Earth.”
In a recent tweet, Ono wrote that politicians “first have a vocal lesson, and make their speeches by singing them,” because “that way you would know the purity of what they are saying.” This advice offers a useful lens for examining the work she does in Warzone. When Ono promises us that “it’s gonna rain,” or that “we are living in a warzone,” it sounds like she is accessing something real within herself, whether something angry or loving or mourning. She feels everything that she’s saying, and if her messages of peace and love seem straightforward, then good; our universal need for peace is straightforward in itself. If her vocals sound desperate and striving in songs like “Why?” and then strong and assured in “I Love All of Me,” it isn’t by accident.
She plucked songs from several different ’70s albums in the making of Warzone, including Plastic Ono Band (1970), Approximately Infinite Universe (1973) and Feeling The Space (1973). Aligned together on this new album, they represent a single, progressive narrative, one that moves from the horror-laced “Hell in Paradise” and the accusatory “Warzone” to something more peaceful, something grounded in love for the planet Earth and the people on it, and in hope for a better and more harmonious future. The closing track is a new version of “Imagine,” the immortal peace anthem that John Lennon released as a solo track in 1971, which he later admitted Ono deserved credit for helping to compose. She only recently received a place alongside Lennon in the songwriting credits. Warzone’s version replaces the opening piano chords with a thinner and more ethereal background, leaving the imagination of the song largely up to Ono’s vocals and granting us the opportunity to hear it as what it is: her song and her vision, in addition to Lennon’s.
Warzone’s release in 2018 has landed it in the midst of a complex and acrid political scene: Trump’s election is behind us, the key midterm elections very shortly ahead. Comparisons have been drawn between our current political landscape and that of the ’60s, rife with tension and protest, the same period that eventually gave rise to “Imagine” and other joint Lennon / Ono efforts, like “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” Ono established herself in the ’70s as a pioneer of feminist rock — an identity she reaffirms in songs like “Woman Power” and “Warzone,” exploring gender binaries with lines about “Men flashing their guns and balls / Women looking like Barbie dolls.”
This context forces us to consider some key questions: Has Ono’s message changed? Has it evolved or has it only grown and aged, as she has — and is there a difference? It’s true that we as a country are still dealing with many of the same issues we faced in the ’60s and ’70s, but our national problems of prejudice and bigotry, disenfranchisement and violence — against other countries and their citizens, against people, against the environment — have evolved on their own and multiplied over the years.
Ono doesn’t reflect these nuances in every song on Warzone, but maybe we shouldn’t expect her to. Maybe there’s a reason why songs like “Imagine” and “I Love You Earth” are so general and universal to begin with. They reflect the world around Ono, but even more so, they reflect Ono’s own enduring idealism, passion, rage and faith. One of the major marks of her music is, after all, her unwavering surety: If you don’t get it, that’s fine. She does.