By Jim Schutze
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By all rights, Julian Lennon shouldn't even have a career in music at this point in his life. Were he a smarter lad, he would have gone into real estate by now or begun selling insurance, anything but a career in pop music. Until Photograph Smile was released overseas last year -- it has been available in the States since May 1999 -- -Lennon hadn't even released a record since 1991's Help Yourself, his final album for Atlantic Records. He spent the better part of this decade trying to get off the label, trying to write, trying to avoid a world that made him a shooting star when he was 21 and a fallen has-been when he was 23. Not that his was a dismal existence: He spent the 1990s sailing, cooking, learning photography, traveling, and playing at his piano -- "just enjoying the good things in life," as he puts it, making it hard for anyone to feel too sorry for him.
But it was never easy for Lennon, who released Valotte, scored a couple of hit singles ("Too Late for Goodbyes" and "Valotte"), and earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist -- itself, the mark of the doomed. It didn't help matters that the label, hoping to capitalize on the success of the debut, hurried Lennon's second album, 1986's The Secret Art of Daydreaming. Even Lennon now admits it was nothing more than a batch of demos pasted together. He speaks of it almost as though it were made by someone else, so unattached is he to the final product. That album was the beginning of his downfall -- the thing that turned the son of John Lennon into a one-OK-two-hit-wonder. The album, and the man, was vilified.
"I understand how the critics and how the public looked at me, and for the most part, I can understand why they felt the way they did," Lennon says of his sophomore effort. "I felt the same way, because I felt that I was never afforded the time I needed to do the work properly. I always felt that there was somebody knocking on the friggin' door saying, 'Well, it's not up-tempo enough, it's not commercial enough,' so there was a certain element of compromise in all that -- in trying to be true to myself, but also trying to give in to trying to be a commercial pop act that had an image. That, for me, had nothing to do with what I was about."
The Push Stars open
Atlantic gave Julian considerably more time to make his third record -- there was, of course, no rush to follow up The Secret Art of Daydreaming, which sat like a dead fish in the cut-out bins -- but it didn't help. As the decade closed, he sounded more lost than ever, like some kid who was ashamed of where he'd been and baffled by where he was going. Mr. Jordan, released in 1989, was a dreadful, dreary record on which Lennon sounded like the bastard stepson of David Bowie. (Perhaps it should have been renamed Tin-Eared Machine.) Whatever Julian was trying to do -- escape his father entirely or simply find out whether imitating someone else famous might garner him the respect he wanted -- the album was a miserable failure, artistically and commercially. Even Lennon regrets it now -- and, truth be told, seems a bit confused by what he was trying to accomplish with the disc.
"I was at a stage where I still felt that I hadn't truly found my own identity, whether that was on a personal level or a professional level or a creative level, and so there had to be some times of experimentation," he says. "Yes, it was a bit Bowie on some vocals, but part of that was tongue-in-cheek, and part of that was everybody thinking that I was trying to run away from Dad's nasal tone or something similar. It was actually me and the boys having a blast, an absolute blast, and I think there are some very good songs on that album. But the label certainly didn't like it, didn't understand it at all, and, of course, there was some inconsistency on my level too due to that fact. But it had been because of how things had taken a left turn after the first album. I put a lot of trust and a lot of hope and faith in these people to guide me through this, but it was not a happy relationship by any means."
After severing ties with his management and his label, Lennon returned to writing the kind of pieces he began composing before he set out to become a "pop star": 20- to 30-minute long classical-tinged compositions tapped out on a piano. After hooking up with producer Bob Rose, Lennon felt the urge to blend his pop sensibility with his orchestra fetish, and the result is a disc loaded with layers: Strings appear on nearly every song, alongside such instruments as the tabla and a bouzouki and the good ol' sitar. And the songs aren't singalong ditties: Indeed, most are sad, slightly overwrought compositions about dead old friends, lost loves, and, just maybe, slaying a few old demons.