A Story is a curio that deserves wider exposure, and it may well be the best starting point for exploring Ono’s solo discography.
Few things are as shocking in the discographies of avant-garde artists as moments of genuine, restrained beauty. Yoko Ono recorded A Story in 1974, during her period of separation from John Lennon, yet curiously it remained unreleased until the artist cleaned out the vaults with her 1992 compilation set Onobox and was later given a standalone version in 1997. Had the material been released at the time, one wonders how it might have affected the trajectory of Ono’s artistic perception. A sharp turn from the noise experimentations of her earlier work, A Story instead marks out territory for Ono as a pioneering artpop figure, one with as firm a grasp on delicate emotional flourishes and wry lyricism as shrieks of confrontational anti-mainstream music.
The opening title track alone is such a sterling example of deceptively simple beauty that it flips all preconceived notions of Ono’s method. An outright piano ballad that is embellished, not undermined, by additions like field recordings of beach sounds and flutes both organic and synthetic. The lyrics are quaint, describing the budding young romance between a flighty young girl and a sardonic boy, but Ono captures the mild tension of their odd pairings even as she revels in the feelings of bliss it inspires. Then, she immediately swerves with the next track, “Loneliness,” in which she multitracks her voice and employs her trademark atonal warbles to a more modulated expression of longing over brittle guitar riffs and minimalist solos that reflect a complete absence of the comfort of the opening track. The music is deliberately grating, but it is still melodic, sublimating the raw emotional power of Ono’s earlier albums into a more accessible and intuitive expression of grief beyond pure pain.
Elsewhere, Ono and her band traverse a surprising range of musical styles. “Will You Touch Me” blends roots-rock barroom piano and Dixieland clarinet under lyrics as plaintive (“Will you touch me, will you touch me/ When my body’s full of fear?”) as they are suggestively ironic. “She Gets Down on Her Kness” only ups the ante of Ono’s thinly veiled come-ons, and the music kicks into even jauntier gear to match her coy delivery, riding swelling prog organ that occasionally breaks down into jagged chords when blended with yelps of a fiddle. “Yes, I’m a Witch” is a jazz-funk lark that rides shuffling cymbals, organ trills and a bouncy horn section as Ono giddily sings, “Yes, i’m a witch/ I’m a bitch/ I don’t care what you say” as if embracing everything the press and raging Beatles fans had thrown at her for half a decade by this point.
These recurring bits of lasciviousness and playful standoffishness mingle with moments of quiet reflection. “It Happened” foregrounds an acoustic guitar over faint electric accompaniment as Ono references an undefined life event that happened “When I least expected” that lilts with romance. On “Heartburn Stew,” however, she sounds like the jilted lover she was at the time. “I threw my woman power in a pot of stew/ And waited for my love to com / But not a single word did I hear from him,” she sings over showtune jazz as she delves ever deeper into caustic condemnation. John Lennon has been the subject of considerable revisionism regarding his treatment of his romantic partners, but it’s refreshing to hear Ono actively working through her desire, sadness, nostalgia and fresh anger in the midst of an abandonment Lennon himself would later flippantly dismiss as his “lost weekend.” It may also explain why this record never saw the light of day until much later, well after not only their reconciliation but, of course, the tragic end of their time together.
It’s hard to say if A Story might have changed the public perception of Ono. There’s no world in which she would have become a chart figure (Double Fantasy notwithstanding), but much like Lou Reed’s own 1974 opus, Coney Island Baby, the record might have shown an avant-garde artist flexing her capabilities as a songwriter. As it stands, the album still sounds ahead of its time. In the odd embellishments of lush, baroque pop are sounds that Kate Bush would arrive at independently, while Ono’s half-earnest, half-ironic lyrics, as smitten with lovers as they are ferociously critical of them, foresee the entire career of Fiona Apple. As fascinating a glimpse into Ono’s powers as her own version of Plastic Ono Band and Season of Glass, A Story is a curio that deserves wider exposure, and it may well be the best starting point for exploring Ono’s solo discography.