That Ono’s most direct expression of grief is told in the abstract is telling.
John Lennon isn’t mentioned by name on Yoko Ono’s Season of Glass. He hardly needs to be; those are his blood-stained glasses on the cover. But for a couple who made their names such a part of their iconography, from the name-calling on The Wedding Album to “Oh, Yoko” and “Mrs. Lennon,” it’s significant. The absence of the name makes the absence of the person painfully clear. Beyond that, it allows Season of Glass to live in the abstract. It’s almost totally unconcerned with the headlines or with the John-and-Yoko mythology. Rather than a chronicle of the exact moment when John Lennon was gunned down outside the Dakotal in New York, it’s a collage of feelings, prayers, and memories—or maybe a “curation” is more accurate.
Like Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree so many years later, Season of Glass comments on an event in its creator’s life through material written before the fact. More than half of these songs were conceived before Lennon’s death and re-recorded with a crack band, and they cohere not just as Ono’s strongest pop album but as an abstract, but nonetheless devastating, portrait of grief.
Songs that might’ve been innocuous before take on new meanings. The titular chorus of “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” (echoed by “nobody sees you like I do”), a song from 1973, becomes more than a great pop hook: it becomes an expression of love on a spiritual level, of the fact that even though her loved one is gone there’s still something there. “Turn of the Wheel,” another song from 1973 that might’ve inspired Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels,” finds her lamenting a love without a “middle road” and doubting her ability to persevere into the future: “Why didn’t anybody tell me,” she trills, “that the turn of the wheel was never to cease?”
I’ve heard “Dogtown” interpreted as a feminist anthem and the immortal line “I let my dog walk me around/he took a [shit] and people smiled/I tried the same and people frowned” as a comment on the double standards to which she and her husband were and still are subjected. That might be true, but it works just as well as a song about normalcy experienced in a daze— how the world seems a bit weird when the one you love isn’t here to share it with you anymore.
That song, like “Will You Touch Me” and “Dogtown,” position Ono as a sort of proto-Tori Amos, proto-Regina Spektor, a quirky songwriter with the kind of whimsical, baroque sensibility we’d call “childlike” if not for the years of hurt and hard lessons they reveal (Ono was 48 when the album was released). The songs on Season of Glass are pop songs, and they’re written with a deft sense for melody and chord changes that, yes, seems to stem out of the Beatles’ book of tricks. Anyone who’s heard enough of Ono’s music knows she can write a hell of a rock record, but her ability to write idiosyncratically and surprisingly in this format might come as a surprise.
Ono originally enlisted Phil Spector to produce; his fingerprints are all over the first and last tracks, “Goodbye Sadness” and “Mother of the Universe.” These are the album’s most spiritual songs, “Goodbye Sadness” mustering a mantra to survive the tear-stained nights and “Mother of the Universe” praying to a maternal God. They’re illustrated with the slow, sax-laced plod Spector always used to give gravitas to the Lennons’ music. But Season of Glass sounds best when Ono’s digging into her box of tricks: tack piano and carnival gewgaws for “Turn of the Wheel” and “Will You Touch Me,” nylon-string café ambiance in “Mindweaver,” vibraphones and saxophones just about everywhere else (saxophonist Michael Brecker does a hell of a job).
In between the songs are snippets of dialogue that say explicitly what the songs hint at. “Even When You’re Far Away,” written during her pregnancy with her son Sean, opens with Sean relaying a story his dad told him. “Mindweaver” begins with one side of a phone conversation between Yoko and her silent lover. And then there are those gunshots that open “No, No, No,” a song that sounds like a lighthearted flirtation (“let me take my scarf off/no, no, no, yes, yes, yes” but per Ono was “sung by a woman who was in such pain that her heart was cracking.”
That Ono’s most direct expression of grief is told in the abstract is telling. Albums connected to tragedy tend to be sanctified, overrated, or viewed as somehow apart from the frivolous fact of art, but it’s not insensitive to turn your grief into art; if you’re an artist, it’s honest, and Ono is an abstract artist. In the liner notes to the 1992 Onobox set, Ono tells a story about a composer who couldn’t help but notice his sister was crying off-key at their mother’s funeral. “It was a story to indicate how inhuman a composer can get in his professionalism,” wrote Ono. “Listening back to these tracks, I don’t know how I made them at the time when I was in sheer pain. But I also think it helped me get through the hard times to just think about being on key.”