Yoko Ono always sounds like she’s having fun, and rarely has she sounded more delighted than on Starpeace.
Yoko Ono’s Starpeace, made in 1985 and with the synths to prove it, is another of many polemical works she and her late husband John Lennon made both apart and alone. It has less to say than a lot of them, which is saying something. There’s nothing as frightful as the opening track of Sometime in New York City, whose name I will not speak here, but there’s also not a lot to expand on “All You Need Is Love.”
On “I Love All of Me,” she declares herself not just a “yellow girl” but also a “white boy,” “red woman,” “black man,” and “aborigine,” carrying the whole world’s strife in her bosom never mind the specificity of those people’s struggles. That that song appeared unchanged on 2016’s Warzone is telling. There’s not much room for nuance with Ono’s brand of liberalism, and most of her criticisms of society fall along the lines of “Mesmerized by mythology/ Hypnotized by ideology/ Antagonized by reality/ Vandalized by insanity.”
Vacuous lyrics about global strife and brainwashed sheeple can be okay if they’re not what we’re supposed to be focusing on. But make no mistake: that is what we’re supposed to be focusing on here. “Wake up, shake up, check out, work out,” she barks on “Hell in Paradise,” like an aerobics instructor. “Join the state of the universe/ United state of peace,” she sings on the title track, somewhat militaristically. One wonders if she didn’t intend this album as a mind-control device. Certainly it’s designed as a weapon, an antidote to Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile system.
Ono and Lennon seemed convinced rock ’n’ roll itself could spread unity and peace around the world. Usually, it’s the money it makes that does that. Ono practiced what she preached: she embarked on a tour to benefit Amnesty International in 1986. But the impact a show like that can make means it’s redundant for Ono to compromise her music with platitudes and slogans. Ono has written great songs. They’re usually not the ones about politics.
The best songs here are the most abstract. “Cape Clear” is a curious parable about a girl missing her teddy bear, told through a thick sheen of ad-libs and dub effects. “King of the Zoo” is about an animal’s dignity being crushed in captivity, and it’s melancholy in a children’s-story kind of way. And while “Hell in Paradise” argues that Earth is a paradise we’ve made our own hell, that theme resonates more strongly on “You and I,” a sweet song about clouds and sunshine that implicitly asks where all the flowers have gone.
It’s hard to come out of the album with much animus towards Ono, simply because her conviction is so strong and her spirits are so high. Even at her most avant, Yoko Ono always sounds like she’s having fun, and rarely has she sounded more delighted than on Starpeace. She converses bemusedly with her own computerized voice; she conjures up a chorus of herself to will her message of peace and unity into existence; she laughs; she cries. But it’s hard to shake the sense that she’s screaming into the void.