"Walls and Bridges" may not be the artiest album in the world, but it's my second-favorite John Lennon solo album.
It's almost as honest as "Plastic Ono Band," almost as orchestrated as "Imagine" and almost as much a "diary" album as "Some Time in New York City." And hey, it even has the only Lennon single to go No. 1 in his lifetime. The album itself also rose to No. 1 on the American Billboard charts, taking Lennon to the top before his 5-year hiatus.
What I find a bit baffling at this time is that "Walls and Bridges," despite those No. 1 placements, is basically ignored or unjustly maligned these days. If people choose favorites of the Lennon albums, they usually go for "Plastic Ono Band" (my favorite) or "Imagine" (his poppier and anthemic album, which Lennon described as "Plastic Ono Band" with sugar on it), or maybe "Double Fantasy" (an emotional choice, as it was his last album released during his lifetime, just weeks before he was gunned down).
But the quality of "Walls and Bridges" warrants its consideration as one of Lennon's great albums.
Sure, the album doesn't start off with the most arresting song he ever wrote. But "Going Down on Love" has that dimly lit barroom confessional vibe to it. It's almost sleezy, and Lennon's voice is confessional and blustery throughout. For whatever reason, it just had a pull to it that told me, "Hey ... he's got stuff to say. I should pay attention." And when he hits the falsetto on "Somebody please, please help me," it brings back the 1965 classic "Help!" and thus assumes the position as a sequel to that song. It had been almost 10 years between songs, but he still needed help. That is a heck of a hook, and sets the tone for the album.
So my ears told me to listen, and I'm glad I did. Whereas "Some Time in New York City" had a lot to say but did it artlessly, and with "Mind Games" being a triumph of sound over substance (there's not a ton of weighty material there ... but there IS good stuff there, so that album should not be ignored), "Walls and Bridges" is about the best you're going to get of an in-depth interview with Lennon about his state of mind at the time.
Next up on the album is "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," the No. 1 single he wrote that featured his friend Elton John. Yeah, it's upbeat and dancey, but describes what could have been Lennon's mantra at the time: If it got him through the night, it's all right. He was drinking heavily, fighting, estranged from Yoko Ono and re-exploring the reckless abandon of his teen years. The guy needed any anchor he could find.
"Old Dirt Road" is one of the best mood songs Lennon wrote during these middle years. I love the vocal, and the mood sounds as warm and dusty and desolate as the lyrics convey. Lennon's vocal on the "cool, clear water" line is fantastic. This co-write with friend and underrated musician Harry Nilsson is a clear highlight of the album.
The first side is closed with three straight standouts. "What You Got," "Bless You" and "Scared" are straight-out emotional odes of different emotional hues. "What You Got" is dripping with regret and bitterness ... "You don't know what you got / until you lose it ... baby, baby, baby / give me one more chance." There is desperation here, and more than a hint of self loathing and anger.
"Bless You" is almost a benediction, a peaceful parting that sounds genuine and full of fondness and calm reflection. One can only believe that it must have been about Yoko Ono, as they were separated during this time. Every lyric here, from "bless you / wherever you are" to "bless you / whoever you are / holding her now," makes it all-the-more a certainty.
Then "Scared" rounds off this emotional outburst with a very pensive and frail Lennon, with a piano backing that perfectly compliments the lyrics. How he juxtaposes the "scared" lyric with "scarred" also conveys the anger he feels in this scary situation. Lennon is at the very top of his lyrical game, and has produced backing tracks that bring out the best of the material.
Thus side one ends, and stands as a heck of a collection of Lennon tunes that rivals any other individual side he'd released to date.
The second side of the album is a bit weaker (and why I wouldn't give the album a 5-star rating). There are classics here, though, songs that should not be dismissed out of hand.
"#9 Dream" is a perfect encapsulation of the mood and feel of the most lulling and peaceful sleep. "Feels so real to me ..." We've all been there. The mix on the vocals, the nonsense words, the gently swirling musical effects ... dream music, indeed.
"Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)" is a weaker track, but has some lovely moments. It's a love song confessional, written about Lennon aide May Pang, and is touching (if a little maudlin). I do love the line "she makes me sweat and forget who I am." And note the "Drive My Car" homage at the end ... instead of "beep beep, beep beep, yeah!" Lennon does "sweet sweet, sweet sweet love." But the rhythm and tone are the wink and nod there.
"Steel and Glass" is kind of an updated version of "How Do You Sleep," though the object of the attack is former manager Allen Klein instead of Paul McCartney. It's so ballsy and muscular, letting Lennon spit the venom in a style that he excels at above all other singers.
"Beef Jerky" is pure filler, with no real benefit to the listener. It'd have suited the album better had the track "Move Over Ms. L" had been included instead ("Move Over Ms. L" is so pithy and straight rock, it's worth tracking down on its own terms).
"Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)" returns the album to the narrative and personal quality of the first side of the album and stands as what should have been the closer of the album. It's strong, poignant and classic Lennon. "I scratch your back / and you knife mine" is about the bitterest he'd ever manage. It's a very poignant song on his feeling off celebrity and what it's done to his life ("all I can tell you is / it's all show biz"), and talks about how no one really loves you until you're six feet in the ground (dead and buried ... a hard lyric to embrace, though probably more than a little true in Lennon's case as fans erupted after his death). The energy and drive that comes through during "Well I get up in the morning and I'm looking in the mirror to see, ooo wee! / Then I'm lying in the darkness and I know I can't get to sleep, ooo wee!" really kicks the song into the next gear.
The album closes with the inessential "Ya Ya," a cover of the Lee Dorsey song. What redeems the track is that Lennon's oldest son Julian plays the drums on the song. It's an awkward way to end such a confessional and impressionistic album ... but I suppose that suits Lennon's character. After all, this was the man who believed (and often said) that the original rock that he group up on could never be bettered, that those songs were better than anything anyone else could do. It gives this album a return to Lennon's roots, which suits the personal nature of the disc.
Lennon's art at this point was the perfect indication of where his life was at ... it wasn't gloom-and-doom, but it wasn't all rosy either. There's a swing style to some of the music, but there are orchestral backings, bare-bones arrangements and lyrical stylings that are classic Lennon.
The album isn't his most political, his most emotional or his most artistic. For those reasons, many dismiss this entry in Lennon's collection as subpar. But the slower mood, the darker tone and the moments of manic light are as much a part of the man as his more acclaimed songs and albums.
The best of the man's talents are all right here. If you're a Lennon fan, this is absolutely essential.