The Musical Landscape of
Julian Lennon

By Russell Hall
Performing Songwriter December 1999
Page 1 of 5

Photograph Smile

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Performing SongwriterWith the offspring of '60s icons populating the music landscape these days like manic fruit flies, it's easy to forget that Julian Lennon was, in a sense, a pioneer.  Unlike, say, Jakob Dylan, Adam Cohen, or even his half-brother Sean Lennon - who are pretty much allowed to go about their business unencumbered by comparisons to their famous fathers - Lennon's early career was punctuated by criticisms that had little to do with his music, and everything to do with his lineage. Though Lennon was as entitled as anyone (more so, one could argue) to lay claim to a Beatlesque musical sensibility, a majority of folks didn't see things that way. It was as if, By virtue of his rich genetic inheritance, Lennon had an unfair advantage that he shouldn't draw upon.

Julian Lennon photo by RanKinA MERE TWENTY-ONE when his debut album, Valotte, was released, Lennon revealed himself from the outset to be a songwriter of great promise. Not only did the album yield two Top-40 hits (the lush title track and the reggae-inspired "Too Late For Goodbyes"), it also garnered Lennon a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. In the aftermath of that success, the young songwriter would have been well advised to take all the time necessary to craft a worthy follow-up. Instead, anxious to capitalize on Valotte's spectacular sales, Lennon's record company rushed him into the studio with little material. As a result, the singer's second album, The Secret Value of Daydreaming, bore little evidence of the pop smarts that characterized its predecessor.

Lennon's subsequent albums - Mr. Jordan (1989), and Help Yourself (1991) - found the songwriter experimenting with new styles, and while each possessed moments of brilliance, neither captured the magic of Lennon's debut. Moreover, the persistent tendency among critics to measure Lennon's artistry against the monumental achievements of his father became progressively burdensome. Frustrated, Lennon decided to opt out of the entertainment world altogether, and to occupy himself with such projects as opening a chain of charity-based theme restaurants and championing environmental causes. For seven years he released no new material.

Happily, Lennon's latest album, titled Photograph Smile, marks a terrific return. His most fully realized, mature, and un-selfconscious work to date, the album bears the markings of someone comfortable in his own skin, beholden to no one but himself. Kicking off with the gently melodic "Day After Day," Photograph Smile veers gracefully between lushly orchestrated pop ("I Should Have Known"), mid-tempo soft rock ("How Many Times"), and elegant piano balladry ("Walls"). And, as if to throw a pie in the face of naysayers, Lennon even includes one blissfully Fab pop confection ("I Don't Wanna Know") that could sit handsomely alongside anything on the Beatles' 1965 album, Beatles For Sale.

To help capture the right ambiance, Lennon recruited orchestral conductor Bob Rose to help produce his Photograph Smile. The result is one of those rare pop albums that utilizes strings in a way that doesn't intrude. Still, though Rose's embellishments are indispensable, the heart of the album resides in Lennon's composing skills, which evidence a growing sophistication that belies his seven-year absence from the recording world. Now 36, Lennon appears to have found his own voice as a songwriter. Perhaps it's time, at last, to stop thinking of him primarily as his father's son.

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