The Bizarre Beat of Yoko Ono’s Drum

In her new album, Warzone, the artist updates songs from her catalog, but misses the mark more often than not.

Yoko Ono at her home in July 1971. (Michael Putland / Getty)

“People of America, please listen to your soul!” That’s Yoko Ono, telling us what to do on her new album Warzone. And what if our soul—collectively, Joseph Campbell-esquely—sounded like Yoko Ono? Which is to say: wizened, innocent, fearlessly strange, offensively artless, and rather peremptory. Warzone finds Ono revisiting and refashioning 13 of her own songs/pieces, from 1970’s “Why” to 2009’s “I’m Alive,” here stripping them down to wiry substructures of piano or guitar, there adding discrete layers of dialed-down freakout courtesy of a crack band of art-rock gnomes. (The presence of the guitar-sizzler Marc Ribot is particularly welcome.) Some of it is beautiful; some of it is bizarre. All of it has an unexpected claim on our attention.

The miracle—and it really is a bit of a miracle—is that 85-year-old Yoko Ono, super-rich and a household name for most of her life, can sound so authentically dispossessed, so uninsulated, so much like a person with a little keyboard haranguing you on the subway. After all these years, hers is still the voice of the outsider, with an outsider’s warrant for prophecy and an outsider’s talent for menacing you in your aesthetics. As in: Is this crap? Is this great? How can I possibly tell?

Take the aforementioned “Why.” The original Plastic Ono Band version was a gibbering, snarling swath of experimental rock, wild but recognizable, in the vein of German pioneers like Can or Faust; now it’s pure Yoko, no band, no tune, working her totally un-rock variations on the single word why. She chirrups, she moans. Her small-aged child voice descends abruptly, as through a trapdoor, into chambers of ululation, or climbs to an uncanny scream. Why? WHY? Whyyyyyyyyy. Animals (parrots, monkeys?) hoot encouragingly in the background. Why what? Why everything.

She reinterprets and retackles “Imagine” (for which she finally received a co-writing credit alongside Lennon last year), and it’s still terrible, one of the least imaginative songs ever: droopy lyrics like “Nothing to kill or die for,” amnesiac theta-state chords. On the other hand, the not dissimilar “I Love You Earth,” which she last attempted with the singer Antony (now Anohni) in 2015, is gorgeous: “I love your valleys / I love your mornings / In fact I love you every day.” That’s the thing about Yoko: At her wackiest, she is really very straightforward, with a special freshness and nursery-rhyme simplicity. So she never goes out of style. A 2018 take on “What a Bastard the World Is,” for example, from 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe, would have been right on the money. This is the song where, after slinging a full ashtray at her errant man (John?), she tells him—with a notable lack of rancor —“You know half the world is occupied with you pigs? / I can always get another pig like you.” Instead, on Warzone, we get a fuzzy refurbishment of “Woman Power,” her old feminist anthem from the same year: “In the coming age of feminine society / We’ll regain our human dignity / We’ll lay some truth and clarity / And bring back nature’s beauty.” Despite some excellent frazzling guitar from Ribot, this doesn’t have the immediacy of “What a Bastard.”

Yoko on Warzone is conspicuously addressing herself to the times. To the war zone, actual and spiritual. “Men flashing their guns and balls,” she chants tonelessly on the title track over a baleful trumpeting of elephants and a clatter of machine-gun fire. “Women looking like Barbie dolls.” Those are some ghastly lyrics. Or are they? Maybe they’re radically unadorned and abrasive and punk-rock and to the point. Again, Yoko’s clarity causes confusion. I have no idea who will buy this album, or what noise it will make as it hits the quivering dome of the popular imagination. But there is awkwardness and gentleness and prophetic witness here. Listen, really attend, to this pop-mythological octogenarian telling us that she loves the Earth, that she has learned to love herself, and that we should stop driving our kids insane—right now—and you might just feel an answering tremor or shudder from within, the wet dog shake of your neglected essential being as it rattles itself awake.