Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every John Lennon Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Mind Games (1973, Apple)                                                                            

A  

Perhaps it was the disastrous sales response to Some Time in New York City that did it, but Mind Games is significant in that it's the first of John's solo LPs that genuinely sounds like he's trying to make music for the masses again and not merely as a means of exorcising his own demons and frustrations.  Prior to this LP, John always stranded his most commercial and most lighthearted material (the irresistible bounce of "Instant Karma!", the aspiring anthems "Power to the People" and "Give Peace a Chance," the hooky blues-tinged rock of "Cold Turkey") on non-LP singles, using his full-lengths for his more self-indulgent tendencies, resulting in a long sequence of albums that, between them, only yielded a single Top 40 hit.  Mind you, Mind Games yielded only one hit single itself (the Top 20-charting title track), but for the first time in Lennon's solo career, there's many a filler cut that sounds like a lost opportunity for a follow-up hit, particularly the happy-go-lucky pop of "Intuition," which is an even better song than "Mind Games" itself, and, while Lennon's political concerns still linger from the previous album, here they're wedded to a playfulness , if not sense of humor, and a commercial bent that that album lacked, making songs like "Only People" and "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)" significantly more fun listens than most of John's previous political excursions.  "Tight A$" likewise finds Lennon returning to more playful and lighthearted rock 'n' roll than anything on his previous solo albums, and "Out the Blue" is Lennon's most delightfully accessible love ballad as a solo artist up to this point.  Whether the attempt to be a bit more commercial makes for lesser art than its predecessors is up for the listener to decide, but it does mean that Mind Games is a significantly less self-tortured outing than any previous full-length from Lennon and is the first that doesn't require anything of the listener but to just sit back and have a good time.  Not to be overlooked.

Walls and Bridges (1974, Apple)                                                       

B +

Lennon's notorious "Lost Weekend" period occurred as this album was made, but, save for the lyrical references to his then-separation from Yoko Ono, you'd almost never know it - the set of songs here is nearly every bit as good as the batch on its predecessor, bolstered by some truly wonderful melodies.  "#9 Dream" is the real creative masterpiece here, and the rollicking "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" - with Elton John cameo - the biggest hit here, even going to Number One (Lennon’s first chart-topper as a solo artist) - but there's no shortage of enjoyable album tracks here: "Bless You" is one of Lennon's dreamier ballads;  "Steel and Glass" revisits the musical and lyrical anger of "How Do You Sleep?" but to superior results; the irresistible "What You Got" is the funkiest that Lennon - or any Beatle, for that matter - has ever sounded on disc; and "Beef Jerky" - with its none-too-subtle nods to the Beatles' "Savoy Truffle" and Wings' "Let Me Roll It" - is arguably the most fun and addictive instrumental any of the Beatles ever made.  True, not everything works - most significantly, the album unravels halfway through the second side ("Ya Ya" is certainly a dubious inclusion and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" sounds out of place on this otherwise fairly unified affair) - and this is undeniably a much more blatantly commercial album than, say, Imagine, but, perhaps for that reason, it's also a whole lot of fun, even more so than Mind Games was.

Rock 'n' Roll (1975, Apple)                                                               

B  

Nearly every bit as enjoyable a listen as its two predecessors, Rock 'n' Roll pales in comparison only due to its nature of being a covers album, which, by nature, just aren't nearly as rewarding for listeners as albums of new original material are - very rare is the cover album that actually enhances an artist's discography rather than appearing as a mere holding pattern or recorded oddity at best.  To John's credit, though, Lennon being the staunch proponent of '50s rock that he was, the concept seems a much more natural fit for him than it does for other artists, so the album is a very pleasant returning-to-roots that, in a ways, seems like not merely an extension of, but improvement on, the extensive catalog of covers-dominated Beatles live recordings from the Cavern Club era.  Unlike most covers albums, which typically sound more phoned in than not and stopgap projects as best, Lennon clearly has a huge passion for this music, and it shows, and his love of the material is infectious.  John's excellent slightly-reggaefied take on Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" went Top 40 and is the only track here to have made it onto of any of the several Lennon greatest-hits packages over the years, so you're not likely to have heard any of the other recordings contained within, but as an album piece, it's quite enjoyable and well-done and is easily the best covers album by any of the Beatles.

Double Fantasy (1980, Geffen)                                                                     

A

It's telling just how strong Lennon's material is on this album is that this may be the most enjoyable of his solo discs, in spite of the fact that exactly half of the disc consists of Yoko Ono numbers.  Lennon, backed by as solid a rhythm section as he's ever had in his solo years (ex-Bowie sideman Earl Slick, Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin, and former Roxy Music drummer Andy Newmark all among the excellent cast of players), sounds more refreshed and at ease here than he has since his happiest days in the Beatles, and his obvious joy at returning to the studio and making music again oozes all over the disc and is as contagious as can be.  Better still, Lennon turns in the most consistently solid batch of songs of his entire solo career: the soulful rocker "Cleanup Time," the furious lament of "I'm Losing You," the lovely ballad "Beautiful Boy," and three classic hit singles in "Watching the Wheels," "Woman," and the joyous '50s-tinged nostalgia of the unapologetically happy "(Just Like) Starting Over" - only "Dear Yoko" falls short of belonging in the same category.   Surprisingly enough, Yoko's material here is not without its merits, particularly the new wave-influenced "Give Me Something," which is a shockingly fun listen, and shouldn't be skipped over entirely.  A welcome return to form, Double Fantasy may not be the art piece that Imagine or Plastic Ono Band is, but it may be the most downright fun - and certainly the most commercially-friendly - album Lennon ever made in the post-Beatles era.

Milk and Honey (1984, Polydor)                                                                    

B +

The posthumous Milk and Honey was assembled from tapes from the same sessions that produced Double Fantasy and which were always intended to be revisited and finished up for the follow-up album, but don't let that scare you off: the production's naturally noticeably rawer than that of its predecessor, but the songs themselves are nearly every bit as good as the songs that made it onto Double Fantasy.  You can make a very strong case for the rollicking pop of "Nobody Told Me" being the finest of all John's solo singles.  Elsewhere, John experiments with island rhythms on "Borrowed Time" to delightful results, while "I'm Stepping Out" is a fun and irresistible jaunty number that should have followed "Nobody Told Me" into the Top 40 and easily joins that song on the list of Lennon's most underrated compositions.  Even "Grow Old with Me," presented here in its original cassette-demo form, has gone on to be one of John's most admired love songs.  Yoko again gets half of the disc here, and her songs are not quite as memorable as her contributions to Fantasy, but that's a minor quibble.