An important collection of well-produced songs whose disposable moments can be justified by the presence of tracks which continue to affect, even as they provide glimpses into what was a highly charged and difficult time.
One of the techniques most associated with Bertold Brecht is is practice of estrangement, the making strange of the familiar in order to focus attention specifically on that which is most easily overlooked. For Yoko Ono’s third album, 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe, it’s the stylings of rock, glam and funk that get this treatment. The double album’s songs are excellently if efficiently delivered by her backing band Elephant’s Memory but, at every point, are undercut and highlighted by Ono’s own approach to these genres which is equally about subverting them as attending to them. In this way, the album is more effective in its exploration of the songs’ various themes than, perhaps, what Ono had produced before. It’s also easier to superficially dismiss Approximately Infinite Universe for not quite nailing the period-specific demands of the songs which is, of course, to do an enormous disservice to the album and the work it seeks to undertake. Such dismissal, a damning with faint praise, is present in Mick Jagger’s apocryphal comment when, after visiting some of the recording sessions, he noted that Ono “was really trying to sing properly. She’s not screaming, she’s really trying to sing.”
Album opener “Yang Yang” starts with a piano-stomp, guitar freak-out that is pure New York 1970s mid-tempo rock, with Ono’s spoken and intoned multitracked vocals offering a slightly askew chanting throughout, suggesting that we “leave your scene of destruction/ and join us in revolution.” The guitar wails continue into “Death of Samantha,” and it’s a softer, melodic vocal line that ushers into the lyrics where it’s hard to tell whether the sometimes clumsy scansion is due to Ono’s own second-language process or part of the song’s play with character and narration. And this is the point to much of what the album is seeking to achieve, reflecting back the assumptions we might have about these songs and their various tropes, revealing them as constructions in a manner entirely in line with Ono’s own Fluxus work. While Ono sings, in an effective, breathy chanteuse fashion, “People say I’m cool/ Ya’, I’m a cool, chick baby’ Ev’ry day I thank god/ That I’m such a cool, chick baby,” it’s hard to know who we’re hearing from.
The oddly proportioned samba of “What a Mess” pulls no punches with Ono intoning “If you keep hammering anti-abortion/ We’ll tell you no more masturbation for men/ Ev’ry day you’re killing living sperms in billions/ So how do you feel about that, brother?.” Along the same lines, “I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window” details Ono’s problematic relationship with her parents while the backing band wheeze and stomp through a sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a local musical theatre. But these oddities blur what is otherwise a coherent collection of songs and for every wonky glam moment, there’s an equally lovely attention to detail, like the acoustic guitar opening to “Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know),” the chanson-like track sung in Japanese, French and English, and gorgeous throughout. “Song for John” is equally a delicate ‘gloomy Sunday’ of a song and an example of Ono’s developing skills as a producer, mixing the vocals further back in the mix and leaving space for the piano to occupy the foreground. But, lest we linger in the gloom too long, “Catman (The Rosies are Coming)” is centered around a fabulous walking bass and saxophone duet, with wah-wah guitar bringing the funk throughout. Finally, album closer “Looking Over from my Hotel Window” is a chilling and deeply moving piano ballad, so intimate as to be painful as when Ono sings “Age 39, feeling pretty suicidal/ The weight gets heavier when you’ve bled 30 years/ Show me your blood, John, and I’ll show you mine.”
Approximately Infinite Universe is truly Ono’s own work and while Lennon provided backing work on most tracks, his credit as co-producer is largely superficial and the bulk of producing work is hers. The lyrics have a focus to them which is highly charged and political, which might be as expected, but they are also playful, self-aware and not without a degree of unexpected compassion. Taken as a piece of Brechtian theatre, the album highlights Ono’s growing attention to genre and reveals, through the songs’ various quirks, the ways we might realize we expect certain things from our music only when those expectations are frustrated. Taken as a straight album, Approximately Infinite Universe is an important collection of well-produced songs whose disposable moments can be justified by the presence of tracks which continue to affect, even as they provide glimpses into what was a highly charged and difficult time.