To have been such a breakthrough hit for John Lennon as a solo artist, to have been the last we’d hear from the former Beatle for half a decade, Walls and Bridges receives precious little attention these days.
Maybe it’s the period-piece production values, from its shag-carpeted strings to its bawdy lost-weekend saxophones. Maybe being lodged precisely in the middle between Lennon’s harrowing 1970 post-Beatles masterwork Plastic Ono Band and his bucolic nostalgic-filled finale in 1980′s Double Fantasy has forever relegated this 1974 effort to a dust-covered second tier.
Dig deeper, however, and Walls and Bridges boasts every bit of the probing wit associated with POB, leavened with the pop sensibilities of Imagine and then sparked up with a new fondness for the funkier sounds associated with R&B and disco. There’s a raw, sometimes utterly bleak, edginess to much of the album (“Scared,” which morphs lyrically into “Scarred,” is as harrowing as anything Lennon ever did), but Lennon mixes in no small amount of party rock (notably on Surprise, Surprise [Sweet Bird of Paradox]” and the charttopping Elton John collaboration “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night”), too. (Stream it!: John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” live with Elton John.) If not for the studio excesses of its era, Walls and Bridges might have been in the same conversation with Lennon’s heralded solo debut all along. To my mind, it still should be.
“Going Down on Love,” boasting a winking double entendre, begins things with an anxious energy — and an early hint at Lennon’s newfound appreciation for his own hitmaking past. Here, Lennon quotes “Help.” One track later, on the retro-hedonistic “Whatever Gets You,” his melody recalls “Jealous Guy” — opening the door for a series of snarky aphorisms straight out of the Beatles playbook. “Surprise Surprise,” with another assist from Elton John, cheekily references “Drive My Car,” and Lennon ends things (in the grand tradition of “Her Majesty”) with a throwaway version of “Ya Ya” featuring his young son Julian. Along the way, Lennon connects in the most complete way he ever did with both his solo career’s edgy confrontational manner and everything that came before.
And yet Walls and Bridges continually steers determinedly toward the unexpected. His narrative pacing, in fact, was never better attenuated.
For instance, Lennon couples “Old Dirt Road,” a mournfully atmospheric collaboration with Harry Nilsson, with the Latin-tinged “What You Got” — which retrofits a line from Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” into an almost hopeless call for lost love. “Bless You,” jazzy and confessional, sits in brilliant contrast to the dreamscape majesty of of “#9 Dream,” a song of stirring musical ambition that combines the basic musical tenets of “I Am the Walrus” with “I’m So Tired” by way of an orchestral idea originally constructed for Nilsson’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” (Jesse Ed Davis’ woebegone, actually George Harrison-like guitar work only adds to the Beatle-y feel.)
Lennon makes a strident attack on his former manager Allen Klein with “Steel and Glass,” happily joins in a twin-guitar attack with Davis on completely fonky “Beef Jerky” (his only post-Beatles instrumental) and makes a shop-worn cliche shatteringly real with “”Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” — this saloon song that would have melted even Frank Sinatra’s whiskey-hardened heart.
Much has been made, over the years, of Lennon’s drink-fueled misdeeds during this period of separation from Yoko Ono — and that’s perhaps sullied the perception of his work product, too. In truth, however, Walls and Bridges was not an aberration in becoming both his first No. 1 album and the source of his initial chart-topping single. Over this 16-month era of debauched second bachelorhood, Lennon also scored a Top 10 hit in “#9 Dream” and a Top 20 hit in his remake of “Stand By Me”; made important assists on a pair of other No. 1 smashes (David Bowie’s “Fame,” and Elton John’s update of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”); gave away songs to Ringo Starr (the Top 10 hit “Goodnight Vienna”), Johnny Winter (“Rock and Roll People”) and Keith Moon (“Move Over Ms. L”); and produced Nilsson’s 1974 album Pussy Cats.
This was, it’s clear, Lennon’s most productive period as a solo artist — and it’s long past time that Walls and Bridges was recognized as its too-often-forgotten capstone.