espite his obvious pedigree, Sean Lennon remains a product of the 90s. He kicked off his serious musical career in 1991 (appearing on Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Says album), performed with mother Yoko Ono in ‘95, joined Cibo Matto, and released his solo album Into the Sun in ‘98. But since releasing an outtake and remix EP called Half Horse, Half Musician in 1999, Lennon has retained a low profile. You’d hear of him performing a gig with NY pal Vincent Gallo here, playing dapper don (dating Yuka Honda, Leelee Sobieski, Bijou Philips, and Elizabeth Jagger) there, but perhaps due to the folding of Grand Royal or his subsequent move to Capitol Records, Lennon grew tired of the recording industry and withdrew from his budding music career. Now after eight years, he’s come back with Friendly Fire. And, surprise!, we find him still circling back to the last decade.
“Dead Meat” which opens the album and serves as the first single, has vintage Sean Lennon in its, well, John Lennon-esque melody. Sean’s froggy voice (similar to his father, if a measure higher) establishes a safe melody, sticking largely around the tonic, over basic chords and a string arrangement. It doesn’t seem that Sean is paying a whole hell of a lot of attention to the songwriting—instead spending his energy on elements like the interplay of each section, the string arrangements, and the selection of a cute little intro riff.
We shouldn’t come to expect anything less, really. Into the Sun served, as much as anything, as a hint towards Lennon’s cavalier attitude towards his work—or a delicate and playful comment on modern music and the baggage of his name. Either way, it was enjoyable to listen to because it tapped into the amateurish mid-90s sentiment that dynamics and juxtaposition should lead the songwriting process—and the sophomoric, but telling, idea that chorus and verse often found their boundaries in the mashing on-off of a DOD Grunge guitar distortion pedal.
On Friendly Fire it seems Lennon is taking the same juxtapositional approach to songwriting, where the song grows out of two riffs and a loud-to-soft or conflict-to-resolution movement, but here he suffers from homogeneity in instrumentation. On a track like “Friendly Fire,” Lennon builds tension into the chorus, but it’s all lost in a sea of slightly dirty guitars, vibraphone, and cymbals. This album is strongest when Lennon reins these elements in with earnest, heartfelt melodies, as on “Headlights” and “Falling out of Love.”
It’s a sort of throwback pleasure to enjoy Sean Lennon’s solo work because it still eloquently articulates a number of post-grunge attitudes towards music, and it fuels some competing views of Lennon. First, there’s the over-privileged self-styled eccentric New York slacker in arrested development who sucks on one of the world’s most famous silver spoons. In short, the guy who slept on Yuka Honda’s couch for a number of years. Then there’s the intensely self-aware, sensitive guy who is still plumbing his own limitations and has a sense of gentle humor about his name and aspirations. Lennon himself is probably a little of both, and with Friendly Fire, we get a number of concepts and stabs at self-aware dynamics, but we mostly just see the over-privileged slacker.