Lennon. The surname carries a lot of weight, especially if you're the son of the famed John Lennon and music is your life focus. Expectation, clout and assumption are confronted at every step in the pursuit to create a unique image and style beyond the legacy of a name. From day one of professional music-making, critical scrutiny is unavoidable and blood line becomes a burden. Do not despair: Life is not always so stressful and constricting. Outlets for any interest, especially music, are always open and there is the convenience of instant public recognition even if no one has ever heard your product.
Welcome to the bittersweet world of Sean Lennon. With the release of his first full-length album, Into the Sun (Grand Royal), inevitably the spotlights have turned to probe (Sean) Lennon's music, his philosophy and his beginnings without regard to the fragility of his blossoming status as an artist. Veteran reviewers are quick to judge based on genetics--they are naively searching out a tangible father-son musical bond when there is no reason for correlation. Newbie writers jump the bandwagon and want a piece of the hype. The blame cannot be wholly reserved for the press; listeners can be just as cruel and pressuring. Consider that most people attending the Paradise last Sunday for the Sean Lennon show were probably thinking, "I never saw John Lennon, but now I'm only once removed from actually meeting the famed father!"
Responding to the mindless presumption of critics and concert audiences expecting a Junior John, Lennon is inspiringly optimistic, "The novelty of me being John Lennon's son is definitely going to get old very quickly and what will be left will be me."
The personal ethic is enlightening, but the wunderkind does have a considerable journey ahead if he ever wants to improve his prospects for genuine success. Popularity and adulation will remain elusive unless Lennon can craft a cohesive musical aesthetic and a decent live show. For now, he should latch on to the free publicity ride while searching out a definition to the new Lennon sound, a definition that is only beginning to germinate while too often struggling for a foothold.
In the middle of his first headlining tour and with Into the Sun behind him, Lennon is acquiring a real taste for what it is like to be a "life-minded" musician. The album is a beginner's triumph whereas the live performance ends up being a muddled, lusterless array. While a concert portrays the band in constant, labored transition without a coherent identity, Into the Sun represents an entertaining range of rock styles from contained experimentation to guitar pop. Although there are shades of the recognizable John voice in Sean, he never fully appropriates his father's style.
Lennon carried out the process of releasing an album with a dissociation from the opportunities the Lennon name has offered him. Along the way, he has been self-conscious without compromising his position or artistic mettle, fully aware of the advantages at his fingertips without ever abusing them.
"I think I definitely could have used my name to get a major record deal and be heavily promoted and transformed into some kind of superstar but I didn't want to do that," says Lennon. "I definitely wasn't ready for it and that's not what I'm about. I wanted to do something more down to Earth."
The result was Into the Sun, a polished albumful of tunes that doesn't suffer from overproduction or banality. Tracks range from a jazzy instrumental ("Photosynthesis"), swooning vocals cum lethargic guitar slosh ("Spaceship") and a toned-down big band Wild West chronicle ("Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy"), all mixed up with love songs galore. Many guests play on the record with Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, Sean's partner, figuring in significantly on most of Into the Sun's material. She is the emotional, reflective centerpiece, an instrumentalist and the producer, contributing so much that the album should be accredited to Lennon and Honda.
What makes the album uniquely Lennon's, though, is his penchant for enigmatic lyrics. His messages verge on the opaque, although the main theme almost always becomes salient by a song's last note. On "Home," a meld of late-era Beatles and guitar-heavy modern rock, "The broken glass that fades/The past is a parade of countless days/Painting patterns in the sand" vaults Sean out of escapism into confronting his legacy in order to move on. "Mystery Juice" is an exception to the rule as Sean makes himself completely indiscernible: "They stole the show and towed the rowboat/Though slow/We're on the go like rabbits in the snow."
Whether you fancy the convoluted lyrics or not, Into the Sun is definitely a solid debut. On his first headlining tour, however, Lennon is far from pleasing. He deserves the reactions of disgust and puzzlement that his live show evokes. The impressiveness of the record plummets so dramatically in the transition from studio to stage that you must question his intentions or point out his ignorance.
At the Paradise, when Lennon and his band pulled out highlights from the album, each song was sucked dry of spontaneous energy. Guitars were too loud, Lennon's noodling was unnecessarily longer than studio versions and the backing band was emotionless. Lennon never even eked out more than a smile. Bright vocals buoyed the performance a bit, but the mood of the show came crashing down when the band broke out in a Beastie-like rap tune and then followed it with a Satan-core metal shriek fest. Rock bottom suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
Although some people were embarrassed to listen, other audience members actually appeared to enjoy the indolent, schizophrenic performance. Applause abounded after every song, even after the globs of unexpected hardcore. Undoubtedly, this part of the crowd complacently clapped at the disappointing mess because of the musician's last name--there was absolutely no other justification for the praise. It was disappointing to see Lennon patronized by an audience numbed by the nostalgia for his father.
When asked whether his audiences buy tickets to see Sean Lennon the name or Sean Lennon and his band play music, Lennon turns away forlorned, thinks a few seconds and replies, "Maybe they all are just there to see me as a name. If they are, fuck `em."
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