Even the most bubble-gum moments on It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) demand greater attention than we’re used to and, in return, deliver unexpected rewards.
It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) is Ono’s sixth solo album, her second album after the death of Lennon, and a continuation of her career-long project of baffling listeners with this oddly charming piece of incredibly-period-specific new wave pop. The album was original released in 1982 and was remastered and reissued in 2017 as part of Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music’s extensive “Yoko Ono Reissue Project.”
Working through the album’s 10 tracks reveals Ono’s project at work. “My Man” is crisp, no mistake, all high frequencies and stuttering digital synths, upbeat as though it was a court order to be anything but. It’s no surprise that it was released as the first single from the album. While syndrums gently clatter in the background, Ono sings “My man is the best in the world/ He’s got the sun in his heart and the moon in his soul,” telling us that “His heartbeat is the beat of the ocean/ He smells like an Aztec magic potion.” Amongst this the chorus, easily the song’s highlight, celebrates this entirely formulaic love with the chant “Babalu-babalu-babalu, I love you, I love you.” “Never Say Goodbye,” however, lifts the by-the-numbers feel with an intro that evokes Talking Heads while Ono’s voice suggests the very best bubble-gum pop, an affecting combination seemingly designed to collapse pop history into a single track. Let us not be fooled though, for at the moment where the song seems to be inching towards the charts it’s interrupted by field recordings of bird calls, Ono’s ululation, a child’s voice (young Sean Lennon’s), a recording of John calling Yoko’s name – a collage of noises that upends the track in its entirety.
“Spec of Dust” mixes kosmische synths with a song style that’s equal parts Pink Floyd B-side circa The Wall and smoky dive-bar ballad, held together with what could easily be a Theremin break in the middle. As with all of the songs here, lyrics hint at the ongoing heartache at John’s loss and it’s impossible to hear her sing “Why do I miss you so if you’re just a spec of dust/ Floating endlessly amongst the billion stars?” and not be moved. “Loneliness,” like many of Ono’s songs, leans into her ability to play with and then interrupt the flow of words, breaking the verse’s standard scansion with a hurried clutter of syllables and then returning to a more familiar rhyme scheme. As with “Spec of Dust” there’s a sense of the darkened cabaret about the song, even as the achingly upbeat white-reggae production style seems hell bent on forcing the track towards the worst excesses of Robert Palmer. Side One closes with “Tomorrow May Never Come,” another track where Ono pays close attention to American pop history with a high school prom-sounding anthem, the handclaps and saxophone, backing vocals and doo-wop backing vocals all gently undone by her tremulous falsetto. At just over two minutes, the song seems to be hitting its stride just as it fades from view, another undermining of pop music expectations and, quite possibly, all of the Utopian assumptions inherent within these.
Side Two begins with “It’s Alright” and the sound of young Sean waking Ono with “Mommy, you have to wake up.” Their dialogue continues beneath the lullaby-like synth chimes and into the lyrics, contrasting the domestic with the professional. “Wake Up” skitters into focus with gentle synth notes, a bare-bones bassline and oddly proportioned percussion while Ono’s voice flutters across the lyrics that start simply enough with her singing “Wake up, wake up, the sun is saying/ I know you’re still in dream land,” but which quickly turn a little darker when she adds “I know you’re afraid of me and the days of the world/ But open your eyes and you’ll see that I’m shining for you.” The music carries on its jaunty way regardless, a trilling synth break arriving exactly on time and serves to further highlight the distinction between how the songs on this album sound and what they actually contain. “Let the Tears Dry” is less wholesome, its sustained whistle notes and synthesized gunshots working to introduce a spartan drum beat and hand claps with Ono, supported by a raft of backing voices, singing “A soul has fled when the blood was shed/ A soul that cared for life so deeply.” There’s little beyond the drums, claps and vocals, giving the piece an elegiac feel that definitely undercuts the deliberately upbeat moments of the previous tracks. “Dream Love,” with its synthesized white-noise waves and electronic burbles, is less effective as a ballad but, as Ono sings “In dream you can fly forever/ And never miss a turn,” it’s clear that John’s presence remains a spectral force, both the subject of the songs and, perhaps, the reason Ono is singing at all. Finally “I See Rainbows” closes the album with another slightly off-kilter piece of synth pop while Ono reminds us that “I don’t wanna be mugged by some mother/ I don’t wanna be shot for ten dollar.” Instead, she reminds us, “This is our world and it’s beautiful/ I wanna survive, survive/ Survive, survive together.”
As with all of Ono’s work, there’s a danger in taking the work at face value and reducing it to its most obvious themes and musical currents. Certainly the inclusion of a ghostly translucent Lennon in the album’s back cover photograph of Ono and son Sean is a very obvious nod to the contemporary events that inform the album’s content, but even with this Ono cannot help but utilize popular culture in order to critique it. At the time of the album’s creation, synth pop was the order of the day and therefore becomes the palette from which she draws. Listening now, what’s revealed is less the way musical style is so historically dependent as the fact that popular music is so formulaically constructed, such that these songs constantly work to build up and then thwart listener expectations. Ono might be difficult to listen to at times, but that’s only because she’s impossible to ignore and even the most bubble-gum moments on It’s Alright (I See Rainbows), and there are a number of them, demand greater attention than we’re used to and, in return, deliver unexpected rewards.