John Lennon died for our sins. Beardy Jesus guise and messiah complex aside, the former Beatle dedicated large swaths of his solo career to demanding penance from us: the war hawks, the caste perpetuators, the Blue Meanies, the obstinately pious, the Paul McCartney idolators, the crooked government-men. Imagine, reissued on vinyl as part of the ongoing “From the Capitol Vaults” series, finds Lennon in full finger-pointing mode. “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier” puts his sigh-inducing populism on full display, its Vietnam protests picketing a fine line between defiance and cowardice. The title track, deified as it is, confirms that he isn’t necessarily interested in solving society’s boo-boos as much as reminding you that he is. And “Give Me Some Truth” (why haven’t the cigarette fascists from thetruth.com jumped all over this?) is all Mr. Lennon Goes to Washington, a pop filibuster for the devious politicians scurrying about on the Senate floor: “No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky/Is gonna Mother Hubbard soft-soap me.”
Edifying, sure, but it’s one of the few lyrical moments of any wattage—Imagine plumbs a cultural concept Frank Zappa once dubbed the “sloganization of America.” What the album confirms is that years of vibe-sucking Beatlemania nudged Lennon into spinning his own artistic cocoon, allowing the songwriter to further indulge in his chosen milieu: activism. (Incidentally enough, for Paul, it was escapism.) Lennon’s bumper-sticker cache is indeed unmatched, but when it comes to bolstering his ideology with anything of substance, he fails to match our most hallowed protest songsmiths: Dylan, Gaye, Marley, Strummer, MacKaye. Do most of his heroes not appear on any stamps? We never find out.
Lennon is too consumed with the struggle within himself to achieve any victories with his politicking. He’s huddled and insular to a fault, willing to expound on power-to-the-people credos, but never able to assert power over his own demons. Powered by a self-analysis that borders on self-obsession, “Crippled Inside” is as confessional as anything since “Help!” And “Jealous Guy” takes the clutched possessiveness of Rubber Soul‘s “Run for Your Life” and pours it through a strainer fashioned from Yoko’s hair. It’s Lennon finding shelter in embarrassing sentiment and domestic stability—or, more simply, making music for housewives and househusbands who chat over coffee and newspaper flyers. Thing is, despite a refined animus toward this modern life, Lennon ultimately deemed it worth saving. And if there’s one positive we can tote from Imagine, that’s it.