Yoko Ono is one of the biggest names in rock history – and yet her music is frequently overlooked, if not actively ignored. Years of frustration at this state of affairs motivated Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard to helm this tribute album, intended to demonstrate the breadth, charm and brilliance of her output. Gibbard is not the first person to attempt to rescue Ono’s reputation, but the crack team he has assembled to cover her songs – David Byrne, the Flaming Lips, Sharon Van Etten, US Girls, Sudan Archives, Japanese Breakfast – will appeal to listeners previously unaware of the source material.
In the same vein, many of the covers make Ono’s strongly idiosyncratic, almost outsider songs more palatable. Sometimes this merely entails exposing the crowd-pleasing loveliness lingering just below the surface, as on Jay Som’s sublime dream-pop rework of Growing Pain. Others iron out some of the essential weirdness: Byrne and Yo La Tengo’s sonorous, barbershop-style version of Who Has Seen the Wind is far less jarring than the hauntingly childlike vocals and Elizabethan-style instrumental of the original. It is only the Flaming Lips that manage to make Ono odder, adding extra trippiness to Mrs Lennon.
Whether Ocean Child’s tendency to replace the startling strangeness of Ono’s originals with something easier on the ear is doing her a disservice is debatable: in 2016, she said she thought her “music was beautiful all along”. This album proves there is appeal to her songwriting that goes far beyond her own inimitable presence – but it’s hard not to miss that presence. In fact, it’s impossible not to repeatedly turn Ocean Child off, and instead seek out the originality and uniqueness of the genuine article. Presumably, it’s what Gibbard would want.