The ongoing project to rerelease Yoko Ono’s full catalog of 11 albums, which began in late 2016, has now reached its second stage with the release of a trilogy of early-1970s albums — taking in “Fly” (1971), “Approximately Infinite Universe” and “Feeling the Space” (both 1973) — that embody a series of tensions.
“Fly” is the most difficult of the three, but in many ways the most musically interesting. With its grindingly repetitive rhythm and looping riff, the 16-minute “Mindtrain” calls to mind another Western experimental rock band fronted by a frantically scatting Japanese vocalist: the German progressive band Can, whose masterful “Tago Mago” had been released six months prior.
And it’s in European experimental acts like Can that “Fly” has its closest affinity in terms of its combination of an expansive, free-form structure with sparseness and minimalism. Where it differs from the German experimental rockers is that while bands like Can sought to expunge Anglo-American, blues-based rock ‘n’ roll influences from their musical vocabulary, Ono’s backing band (notable guests include John Lennon and Eric Clapton) defaults to blues licks whenever left to its own devices.
Compared to its predecessor, “Approximately Infinite Universe” and “Feeling the Space” are more conventional rock albums in that they strive for songs with recognizable structures and melodies. A tension constantly simmers beneath the surface though, between the increasingly slick musical backdrop and Ono’s tenuously moored creative instincts.
Ono was also never a conventional rock vocalist, and when she tries to sing rock ‘n’ roll, it comes out with an edge of conversational flatness — a sound that, combined with her occasional eruptions of shrill vocalizations, would eventually find a home for itself in the punk and new wave era five years later.
However, even as Ono herself reaches ahead to the ’80s, the music is still built using rock mined in the ’60s. One of the most fascinating things about these albums is hearing the worn-out stub end of 1960s rock straining against its own conventions to find an angular shape that matches Ono’s songs.
The trajectory that takes Ono from avant-garde through to merely oddball rock also forces her to channel her feminism through the structures of rock music. Unable to express herself any more through the free-form primal screams and intimate musique concrete of her early albums, she increasingly has to articulate the politics of her music narratively. On “Feeling the Space” in particular, the songs often see Ono exploring her themes through the eyes of characters, as on “Woman of Salem” and “Angry Young Woman.”
The main recurring musical impression of this triptych of albums is of an artist reaching for the future using the musical building blocks of the past, and this is an underexplored part of the problem Ono has faced in being respected as a musician. She teases the rock listener with the hint of the familiar but it’s aiming for a fundamentally different kind of vision.
Hanging between the past and the future, and with a profoundly feminist ethos running through all of them, these albums embody struggle on multiple levels. If Ono’s vision didn’t feel quite complete in the early 1970s, it’s that sense of struggle that ensures the music she was making retains its vitality and relevance.