“Childlike” is not often an adjective appropriate for ’90s rock. We value knowingness, scoff at naïveté as if it can’t be natural, not when elementary school children play shoot-’em-up with real guns. And so we embrace teen harmony groups who pretend to be pimps double their age and consider it normal, genuine. We like it when Fiona Apple sings jadedly and plays prodigiously, don’t like it when she acts her age. We like youth, distrust youthfulness.
As the son of perhaps the most famous couple in rock and roll, Sean Lennon’s public identity is tied to his lineage, his childhood, and his loss. The heir of wounded dreamers, Sean would be expected to make despairing, angry art that picks up where his mom’s mourning music left off. A veteran of Yoko Ono’s last band, IMA, as well as a touring member of Cibo Matto, which includes his girlfriend, keyboardist Yuka Honda, the 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist has kept professionally close to home, supporting the older women he loves, just as his dad did. That legacy has put a lot of weight on his shoulders, and you’d anticipate him to chuck it with the force of a man eager to establish his own identity.
With Into the Sun, Lennon’s done exactly that, but as a child might–playfully, lovingly, if a little restless. Reluctant to settle into any one style that could be considered a negative reaction to or following in the footsteps of his parents, he plays hopscotch across the history of pop, jumping into jazz here, country there, alt-rock down the street, and folk cheese ’round the way. Sidestepping his bio-history to concentrate on the here and now, he’s created a concept album about his affection for Yuka, who doesn’t answer him back, John-and-Yoko-style, but produces, plays, and sings as if half of a loving whole. It’s their innocent Double Fantasy.
Whereas that album addressed the complications and rewards of long-term bonds from a matured perspective polished by the pair’s slick studio-pro pals, Into the Sun celebrates new love with clumsiness, insecurities, hopefulness, and hormonal bliss. As her yummy Cibo Matto work attests, Honda favors oddly pretty sounds, old analog synthesizers and mixing boards, tasty ear candy but not a lot of refined sugar. Lennon’s multihued songwriting skills and instrumental flexibility complement her pop experimentalism just fine, and the simplicity of the recording gives their esotericism a cozy, homespun feel, as if the couple were exploring distant galaxies from the privacy of their nuptial bed.
John and Yoko did similar stuff, but most of the songcraft ended up on Dad’s records, while the weirdness settled on Mom’s or those fleeting Wedding Album specials. Sean and Yuka generate sweet and sour simultaneously, or lay them side by side. Butterfly melodies flit across aural gardens of grunge-eating flowers, fruity synthetic textures give way to walls of power chords or lacy acoustic curtains, while Latin jazz and Brazilian coochy-coo ballads do the bump with acid-tinged music hall and chilled bachelor-pad grooves. With a little help from their Downtowny friends, the pair assemble a record that’s more creative and enthusiastic than it is accomplished. True to the Grand Royal tradition, Lennon, Honda, and co. sound like trust-fund dilettantes posing as boho so-phisti-cats–a creative reach that exceeds their performance grasp.
Though that reads as a bad thing, it’s certainly refreshing: the charts are glutted with soundalike shit generated by working-class wannabe heroes and redneck bumpkins flaunting rootz to cover a lack of imagination. Lennon and Honda’s mix of aesthetic worldliness and emotional/technical awkwardness conveys the young-oddballs-in-luv theme convincingly, charmingly. It’s only when they dumb down to the level of parody that the carefree eclecticism comes across studied. On the country-fried “Part One of the Cowboy Trilogy,” Lennon actually whines, “If I was a rooster I would cockadoodle all day.” His reedy tenor warbling is appealingly candid or grating, depending on whether he hits the notes. Whereas half-bro Julian sounds spookily like their dad, Sean definitely has his own voice, although its pitch instability is bound to evoke for some listeners his mom or another Asian American with a recent jones for twee ’70s folk, solo Smashing Pumpkin James Iha.
Aiming all over the place, Into the Sun hits its marks when Lennon’s melodic romanticism comes across as a gift to his beloved, missing them when the stylistic mix ‘n’ match seems more like a pleasant dalliance. His intonation is better in the quietest moments–the duet with lead Cibo Matto Miho Hatori on the title track samba, the ode to cuddly couchpotatodom “Breeze,” the low-key trip-hop of “Bath Tub,” and the Stevie Wonder homage “Two Fine Lovers.” When Sean injects his unplugged pop with some muted metal or psychedelica, as he does on “Mystery Juice,” “Home,” “Spaceship,” and the Beatlesque “Queue” (which sounds more like McCartney than it does Lennon), the grooves rock, swing, and bop but his singing sounds too unstable, unschooled, overwhelmed. Some vocal coaching would be cool.
In their own private-as-public way, John and Yoko were innocent too, and it’s touching how closely Lennon and Honda have carried the flame of love as art. It’s not as powerful a statement, since we haven’t had a chance to get to know the pair on their own, but hopefully there’ll be time for that. Unlike so many second-generation popsters, Sean has enough talent, particularly in the songwriting department, to stand alone. He doesn’t need his name, nor his associates, yet they sure provide an adult context for his beautiful boyishness.