With Take Me To The Land Of Hell, Yoko Ono has released her best effort since 2009’s Between My Head And The Sky, and this time around she’s done it with a star-studded cast. After collaborating last year with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on Yokokimthurston, 2013’s Meltdown Festival curator has brought about a laundry list of collaborators who include tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove of The Roots, Nels Cline (of Wilco as of 2004), Lenny Kravitz, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt and Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D. Oh, and it was produced by her and John Lennon’s son Sean Lennon (now part of Plastic Ono Band). Such a hyped list of collaborators, especially when combined with Ono’s political activism, could easily have led to a bloated outcome. But Take Me To The Land Of Hell doesn’t concentrate on its stars. It’s subtle and magical, occasionally ridiculous, and never overgrown.
To start, excellent opener Moonbeams almost starts out like a gentler, more positive version of Pharmakon’s disturbing noise but eventually breaks down into a blippy motorik beat that involves Ono cackling and wailing, showing she can still be the queen of the avant garde. When the song breaks down into Ono’s screams, it’s nothing short of exhilarating, and the combination of her beautifully ugly wail and her band’s more straightforward stadium guitars and drums is wholeheartedly cathartic. But once you get to track two, you realize that Take Me To The Land Of Hell is not stylistically cohesive. And for an artist as chaotic and spontaneous as Ono, that’s okay and perhaps even for the better.
Indeed track two, Cheshire Cat Cry, is the antithesis of Moonbeams: it’s funky, featuring a comparatively subtle, actually pleasant Ono coupled with a rounded bass line, Lennon’s distorted, raw blues guitar, and Moog synths. And then, once fourth track Bad Dancer rolls around, you find another face of Ono. You also find yourself wondering whether you’re listening to Ono or someone raised on a healthy diet of LCD Soundsystem. To Ono, the very fact that she can write a song about how she’s a bad dancer and nothing more is tongue-in-cheek; she audibly laughs during the song.
Most importantly, the fact that Ono’s musical influences sound contemporary either means she’s open minded and contemporary herself (an opinion aided by, yes, Take Me To The Land Of Hell’s list of collaborators) or that she’s oblivious to what her music recalls, which is also impressive because it would suggest she arrived in the contemporary music world on her own without any outside influence. The prime example of Ono’s contemporary means of production is actually something subtle: the opening squeaks of There’s No Goodbye Between Us, which recalls something like Passion Pit’s Sleepyhead. At the same time, it features quintessential Ono: kitschy, glitzy, and sad.
Overall, Take Me To The Land Of Hell is Ono putting her own timeless, absurd mark on contemporary sounds. Whether it’s the Nancy Whang meets Frank Zappa disco-funk of 7th Floor (Ono fits right in with the recent mainstream disco revival), the ’70s Lennon absurdity of NY Noodle Town, or the album’s cinematic, orchestral title track, Take Me To The Land Of Hell is always interesting and always moving in many directions at once. Of the artists who can pull off that kind of randomness, Ono remains pre-eminent.