Had Feeling the Space been released by literally any other artist during the height of the confessional singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s, it would’ve been hailed as a revelatory classic.
1973 was a particularly rough year for Yoko Ono and John Lennon. In July, their respective personal problems had created such a rift in their marriage that they separated, Ono remaining in New York and Lennon taking off with personal assistant May Pang to Los Angeles for his infamous “lost weekend” period of drunken debauchery and general heinousness. It was in this environment that Ono set about writing and recording Feeling the Space, an album that can easily be classified as her redefining of the singer-songwriter genre so prevalent at the time. It’s a deeply personal collection of songs – as has long been her natural approach – delivered in what can only be described as a highly commercial manner.
Opening track “Growing Pain” sounds downright accessible in its approximation of West Coast-style pop, complete with gentle flute, plaintive piano and tempered vocal delivery. More so than perhaps anything else she’d released up to this point, it’s a track that could’ve been marketed to a broader listenership. Yet its lyrics ensure “Growing Pain” would remain a challenging work. The song’s (and album’s) very first line sets the tone for what is to come: “I’m a battleship, frozen by my mother’s anger.” Still later, she is “…a woman without country or state/ Opening her head to the universe.”
“Yellow Girl (Stand By for Life)” follows a similar thematic path: “She tells her men to stand by/ She tells her friends to stand by/ She tells her world to stand by/ But nobody knows she’s a stand by for life.” Recorded during her well-publicized split from Lennon, Feeling the Space is every bit the product of the once seemingly inseparable pair’s separation. The title, taken literally, finds Ono feeling the literal, physical space that had developed between her and Lennon, while the music finds her exploring themes of vulnerability and outright anger. Gone are the more avant-garde trappings of her previous outings in favor of something far more accessible and yet still just as deeply personal as anything she’d recorded up to this point.
The bongo-led “Woman of Salem” is a bleak examination of the town’s infamous witch trials, the parallels to 1973’s social issues and Ono’s place within a broader cultural context heavily implied, the metaphor being allowed to speak for itself. It’s yet another instance of the music standing in sharp contrast to the song’s lyrical content, using a very early-to-mid-‘70s singer-songwriter/pop soundscape against which to cast her confrontational lyrics. That she largely refrains from her increasingly trademark shrieks and wails shows just how important she perceived her message to be, hoping this particular packaging might be more palatable to a broader audience.
But by 1973, any and all impressions of Ono’s recorded output had largely already been well established within the public consciousness and, despite her best attempts, her message would largely go unnoticed by all but the most diehard listeners. “Woman Power” and “Run, Run, Run” were both released as singles, though neither made any impression on the charts whatsoever (a remixed version of “Woman Power” would reach number six on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart in 2015). The latter is particularly affecting with its verse spelling out Ono’s then-current state of being: “I came out of the darkness into the house/ The lights were left on by nobody around/ Feeling the room/ Feeling the space/ Suddenly I notice it wasn’t spring anymore.”
“Straight Talk” is about as bold a statement on interpersonal relationships as one could ever hope to hear, Ono matter-of-factly singing, “Unless we teach each other/ What we really feel/ How are we gonna communicate/ And get ourselves together?” Obviously directed at Lennon, its universality makes it one of the definitive songs on the subject of relationship strife and how best to go about healing seemingly irreparably damaged rifts: “He says he’s never petrified/ But his eyes tells me something else/ What is it, baby? Tell me, tell me/ Speak up, give it to me straight/ Or we’ll never know what you need/ Or what you want.”
If “Straight Talk” was directed at Lennon, “Angry Young Woman” offers Ono’s side of the story for anyone who might bother to inquire. “She left her man, she left her children/ ‘Cause she knows she has only one life to live/ Angry young woman with her background on her forehead/ Three children and two abortions …/ Hears her man shouting for his shirt/ And thinks of the first Sundays they spent in the park.” Again, she manages to strike a universally relatable tone for anyone who’s ever felt dissatisfaction or disaffection within the context of a relationship. It’s yet another example of her unheralded strength as a writer of exceptional depth and humanity.
Had Feeling the Space been released by literally any other artist during the height of the confessional singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s, it would’ve been hailed as a revelatory classic, one destined to influence countless generations of writers and musicians with its gorgeously poetic renderings of heartbreak, anger at social injustice and deep personal misgivings. Listening to it now, it sounds very much a product of its time, all laidback West Coast cool delivered by ace New York session players, many of whom had already or would soon appear on legendary albums by some of the biggest names in the genre. Instead, it was unfairly relegated to the dustbin of history. Like the vast majority of her catalog, Feeling the Space is well worth a reappraisal.