John Lennon‘s eighth and final studio album is, like its predecessor, Double Fantasy, a record that is credited to both John and Yoko Ono; Milk and Honey follows a similar format in that the songs are alternately written and performed by both of them. Released in January 1984 it is, of course, a posthumous release that followed John’s tragic death in 1980. Milk and Honey is an album that was in the works from the time of recording Double Fantasy, but following John’s death, Yoko felt unable to start work on finalizing the record until 1983. John’s songs are created from rough takes and demos, which gives them an interesting edge. Yoko’s songs date from 1983 and are much more polished and redolent of the mid-1980s.
Milk and Honey‘s coupling with their 1980 album is further evidenced by the colour shot, from the same photo shoot, that spawned the cover of Double Fantasy. Yoko says that the album’s title was both a reference to “the land of milk and honey” and the couple finally being allowed to make their home in New York City, but it also refers to the fact that, “In the Scripture, the land of milk and honey is where you go after you die, as a promised land.” John and Yoko had agreed even before he was killed that this would be the title of their next record.
John’s songs having been recorded at the same time as Double Fantasy and it had been his intention to work on them some more if tragedy had not struck. While there may be the odd rough edge in John’s vocals, there is also a freshness that makes the songs work so very well. The reggae-influenced ‘Borrowed Time’ is a great example of this, with John sounding way younger than thirty-nine, as he was when he recorded it. The talk-singing at the end of the track may well not have made it onto the final track if John had lived, but it does work so perfectly. Yoko said of the period between John’s death and her being able to work on finishing Milk and Honey, “From ’81 to ’83, it was as though Sean and I were standing in a snowfield surrounded by human wolves, who claimed themselves “close friends” and meanwhile raped and desecrated John¹s body in front of our eyes. We saw beautiful rainbows behind the black forest and people calling us with love from the distance, but there was no way to let them know what was happening. And Sean and I decided to call the rainbow to us by sharing our song with you.”
That feeling of “Calling the rainbows” pervades Yoko’s songs, songs that inevitably focus on her huge loss and her period of grieving that followed. Yoko’s intensity is there for everyone to hear, her passion and love for John shine through, but it also helped create a batch of songs that are among some of the finest she has ever produced. The poignant, simplicity of ‘Let Me Count the Ways’ is just gorgeous. In a very different way, ‘You’re The One’ takes society’s view of John and Yoko and juxtaposes it with their view of their relationship to that of the rest of the world. “To the world, we were Laurel and Hardy. In our minds, we were Heathcliff and Cathy. In a moment of wisdom, we were a wizard and a witch.” Heathcliff and Cathy are Bronte’s Wuthering Heights hero and heroine. The poetry in Yoko’s lyrics on this track and all her songs is superb. Interestingly, ‘I’m Stepping Out’, the first song on the album, was also the first to be recorded when the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey sessions began in early August 1980. It had been written in Bermuda after John’s eventful sailing trip to the island. It was inspired by a visit to a nightclub on the island, which was something of a catalyst for the whole idea of getting back into the recording studio.
John even references “the promised land” in ‘I Don’t Want To Face It’ and it is another song that took a firmer hold on his imagination during the trip to Bermuda. It is another of John’s soul-baring songs, “Say you’re looking for some peace and love, Leader of a big old band, You wanna save humanity, But it’s people that you just can’t stand.” It is delivered in a far jokier manner than the lyrics would seem to justify, but that is also its strength, helping in making it work in a completely different way. It is another early song from the sessions for both albums that were recorded at New York’s Hit Factory studio. The instantly catchy, ‘Nobody Told Me’ became the first single to be released from Milk and Honey with Yoko’s, brilliant, ‘O’ Sanity’ as its b-side the ending of which is inspired. ‘Nobody Told Me’ made No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.6 in the UK.
Almost inevitably, Milk And Honey sold fewer copies than Double Fantasy, however, it still made No.3 in the UK and just failed to crack the top 10 in the US, stalling at No.11. Upon its release in 1984, it has the honor of being the first album to be released on compact disc by any of the Beatles. The one song of John’s that needed the most work was, ‘Grow Old With Me’. John had recorded it at home, with just a piano accompaniment, on a cassette. It was his intention to turn this into a lush, orchestral production that would have, for sure, been hailed as a masterpiece. As it is it makes us realize what we lost, and at the same time marvel at his ability to write such great songs.
The whole album reinforces the sense of loss that we feel when we listen to it today. From John’s songs of promise, that promised so much more, to Yoko’s songs that reflect her deep personal loss. Yoko’s personal soul barring reminds us of John’s openness in writing about his own inner feelings that came to prominence in his own solo career, but had started way back in 1965 with the Beatles and songs like ‘Help’. It is too easy to just think of this record as a posthumous release of bits and pieces from John. It has much more to it than that and deserves to sit alongside any of his solo recordings. It finishes the portrait of John Lennon as a solo artist in fine style.