March 14, 2016
Released On May 19, 1998
Released By Grand Royal Records
I don’t know how I came to own a copy of Sean Lennon’s debut album Into The Sun. It’s like one day I didn’t own it and then all of a sudden, it was something I was regularly listening to. Maybe I read a review of it in a magazine and sought it out. I certainly wasn’t averse to doing that. Maybe it was the name recognition? Although, if that was the case, why hadn’t I investigated Julian’s oeuvre?
Regardless of how I came to own the album, I came to own it in a time where my brain was doing that adolescent thing of filing anything halfway decent that I listened to into the permanent file folder of classic. And so the album holds a special place in my heart, even though sometimes it falls completely off my radar.
Having listened to it a couple of times in preparation for writing this, a couple of things stick out to me. Chief among them is how much many portions of it sound like Radiohead’s OK Computer. I’m talking about the loud guitar parts and basically the entire song “Spaceship” — which is track six on this album and sounds like a demo version of track six on OKC: “Karma Police.” This is not to say that I think Sean Lennon said to himself “Yeah, but what if I mixed that Radiohead guitar rock sound with a late 60’s “Girl From Ipanema” sound in about equal parts?” Not at all. I think this album has a unique sound to it. For instance, I defy you to place the centerpiece instrumental “Photosynthesis” anywhere else, on any album, by any band.
Another aspect of the album that stands out to me is how prevalent his girlfriend, Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, is on the album. In addition to Lennon saying the whole thing was inspired by her, the liner notes credit her with playing/providing sequencing, sampling, guitars, vibes, keyboards, drum machines, glockenspiel, mellotron, thumbtack piano, percussion, and vocals (which is the exact same number of instruments/things that Lennon himself is credited with providing). She also produced the album.
I haven’t ever checked out anything else by Sean Lennon, aside from adding the albums to my Amazon wishlist as I heard about them. I think that a big part of that is that I don’t want to tack some of the shine off this album if I don’t like them as much, or if I like them more. Into The Sun holds a special place in my heart and the tragedy of that is that I’m left to wonder how the nearly 20 years of his career have gone since it came out, even though the answers are right there on the internet for me to check out. Maybe one day I’ll break out of my self-imposed quarantine. Just not today.
The music, his look, and even his demeanor all just scream “don’t ask about my dad!” Sadly, no one got the hint.
I can’t exactly pinpoint why, but I spent a good number of years listening to just about everything Grand Royal was putting out. It seemed like an endless supply of awesome artists from Luscious Jackson to Atari Teenage Riot to At The Drive-In. And this didn’t miss a beat when the label announced it would be releasing the debut of Sean Lennon in 1998. Into The Sun is a sprawling canvas of utilized creative opportunities and unexpected twists. The first song alone contains all of this throughout its close to six minute running time. “Mystery Juice” begins with a subtle introduction to Lennon’s nasally vocals to only blast off into crunchy guitars and end on a patient note. A note that acts as if it’s telling the listener to take a deep breath, because they are going to be here for a while and there’s a lot more to come. The rest of the record never sits still within the comforts of a single genre. “Photosynthesis” gives the record another break with its lounge intermission. “Queue” feels like it could have been a more contorted Elliott Smith ballad. “Two Fine Lovers” engages with a lot of soul influence in its captivating chorus. “Home” may be the most straight-forward song on the record and it makes sense as to why this would end up being the first single. On album closer “Sean’s Theme,” a voice can be heard wishing Sean a good night. Many would mistake this voice for that of his father John Lennon. That would turn out to not be the case, as it would actually turn out to be the owner of the studio that Into The Sun was recorded at. Despite the mistaken identity, it seems like a fitting ode in the final moments of this record. It’s a tribute to the core of what started his creative aspirations. It’s a shame to read and hear that the promotional tour behind the record was a bit difficult for Lennon with more attention being paid to his family connections and not the record. That’s a shame only because Lennon made an album that music connoisseurs and casual listeners can appreciate for its many charms. It was a point in music where so many artists were releasing their greatest work and Lennon was just getting started.
Everyone knows Sean Lennon because of who his dad was, but his music is probably a lot less familiar. I’ve never been a huge fan or follower of his work, but I’ve always kept at least vague track of what he was up to. I felt a weird sort of connection to him — after all, we’re only three months in apart in age. So I arrived at Into The Sun with some familiarity. I knew from his solo work I’d get some solo bedroom-pop stuff (as opposed to the unfortunately rather ponderous psychedelia of his band, The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger), the sort of thing that might feel like “tiny music” — not the Stone Temple Pilots album, but quietly charming stuff that sounds as if it’s been played on small instruments in a quiet room, always at a reasonable volume. Sure enough, that’s exactly what Into The Sun has on offer, and it’s quite a charming listen for exactly that reason. Putting it on late in the morning, after you’ve slept in late because you don’t have any particular place to be, is a rewarding experience. The bouncy funk of “Photosynthesis” is a mid-album departure, but works well in context, and most of these songs have memorable choruses that will make you smile. Fans of Belle And Sebastian or Jens Lekman should definitely take note of this undiscovered gem.
You only need to read the name on the cover to be cognizant of the shadow that hangs over this music. But only three minutes into opening track “Mystery Juice,” as we leave behind 90s alt-rock sounds for stuttering electronic bleep-bloops, a psych-rock synth line, and wordless moaning, the shadow dissipates through this surprise and oddity that comes to characterize Sean Lennon’s debut album Into The Sun. A lot of the album exists in this push and pull between typical song structures and arrangements, like the light pop-rock duet/title track “Into The Sun,” and unexpected diversions that sneak their way into the music. “Bathtub” is another seemingly standard song, yet it includes a fifteen second instrumental interlude where the mix opens up and shimmering synth tones reverberate over the acoustic guitar panning before continuing right where Lennon left off. This kind of playful approach to his music is what allows Lennon to stick seven minute jazz jam session “Photosynthesis” in the middle of the record and have it actually kind of work. The upbeat psych-pop of “Queue” (with truly out-of-nowhere piano outro) is probably the best synthesis of these myriad sounds and influences. It’s a really good album that escapes comparison or even typicality thanks to its adventurousness in genre, arrangement, and instrumentation.
Judging by the reactions of his friends (and his lineage), I’d guess that’s not the first time he’s bought psychotropic “fish.”
Forgive me — I have to freak out a minute about “Photosynthesis.” There are lots of jazz elements on Into The Sun, but “Photosynthesis” effectively hijacks the album for six and a half minutes and sends it into orbit. The bass line is just unconscionably, intensely groovy — the kind of pattern that begs to be sampled and repurposed. (Couldn’t find it on WhoSampled, so it’s not too late!) I could totally see it adorning a slow-mo sequence in a Guy Ritchie movie: gangsters in suits dragging some poor, bloodied soul into a room he’ll never again see the outside of. The other place I see it fitting is in a Radiohead song. Like someone gave the sheet music for the B-section of “Paranoid Android” to a jazz ensemble and said “Go nuts.” (Into The Sun was released while OK Computer‘s massive wake was still rippling outward, so it’s not that hard to imagine that scenario actually playing out.) Maybe this will be more interesting to me than to anyone else, but it’s odd how, even though Sean Lennon has lived an international life — kindergarten in Tokyo, boarding school in Switzerland, college in New York — this one bass line pushed my mind toward two icons of late 90s British creativity. Is that because his father’s shadow was looming over him then, or because it’s looming over me now? Both, maybe?
One things you will not be shocked to hear about me is that I don’t like surprises. Please don’t ever throw me a surprise party. I will cry and hide. I just don’t enjoy not knowing what is going to happen next. As much as I love challenging, plot-twisting television like “Fargo,” there is something so pleasant and comforting about viewing the same episode of “Happy Endings” for the fiftieth time. I vaguely remember the single “Home” being very of the time — that is, late 90s alternative/indie. I thought that Into The Sun was going to be like a nice, expected episode of “Happy Endings.” I would feel warm and nostalgic inside, but the record would largely leave me feeling empty. That is not what happened at all — once the bossa nova beats of the title track started, I knew I was in for something different and somewhat surprising. Apologies to Bill Hader, but this record really does have everything. Bossa nova! Indie pop! Boy-girl vocals! Country! Lyrics about spaceships! Beatles harmonies! Fuzz rock! Jazz trumpet! That is not to say, however, that Sean Lennon’s 1998 classic has the staying power of New York’s hottest club; in fact, I think as a whole, the record is masterfully done. Lennon has a great skill for interpreting many different styles of music, as well as wrangling a wildly diverse group of musicians to help him execute his vision. I definitely plan to add this to my spring listening rotation (it sounds wonderful on headphones and also makes a fantastic spring cleaning soundtrack), and I will try to be more open into the future to the good kind of surprises (read: not parties).
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
I’m pretty sure Sean Lennon hates having his music compared to that of his famous Beatles father, but that’s the first thing I thought upon listening to “Into The Sun.” It’s simple, happy, and very infectious. It takes me back to the days of Abbey Road and Rubber Soul. Sean Lennon’s relaxed, simple voice easily guides listeners through his collection of fun poppy songs. The best part is that Lennon is not content with one style of music. He goes from pop to jazz to Beatles-esque harmonies all the while keeping it coherent with the time — “Mystery Juice” and “Bathtub” feels just as much late 90s songs as they do a 60s melody. It’s a strong debut that makes me want to check more of his recordings.
For me, Into The Sun always represented the end of the “Alternative” era. Back then, I would save up my allowance to pick out an album under the giant sign reading Alternative at the mall record store. I bought albums like Primus’ Pork Soda, Weezer’s Blue, Offspring’s Smash, The Presidents Of The United States of America S/T, and so many others. Sometimes I would just pick them based on the artwork (these Weezer guys look like me!) and other times I had seen the music video on MTV. If Perry Farrell and Lollapalooza helped usher in this era, then Beastie Boys and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts certainly deserve credit for keeping it going. The mixing of cultures, influences, and sounds with serious political content, humor, and creativity were quintessential. After going back and listening to Into The Sun with fresh ears and scouring the liner notes, plus having seen his current project The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, it’s surprising to me more people aren’t celebrating Sean’s work. Also, how many albums are produced by women? (Doug will probably put an editor’s note right here saying The Germs were produced by Joan Jett — Editor’s Note: I would though she spent more time drinking than producing.). Go ahead, Google “albums produced by women” and see what happens. Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto) did a fantastic job of blending all of the styles on this record.
Lennon and his then girlfriend, album producer, and Cibo Matto bandmate Yuka Honda looking just adorable around the time of Into The Sun.
Mellow warmth. Innocence. Exuberance. All summed up in Sean Lennon’s glowing visage that adorns the cover. This marker-Polaroid serves as an invitation to and postcard from a luminous destination. Let’s join him, shall we? “Mystery Juice” launches this indie pop menagerie, turning the wistfully plaintiff into a fuzz ballad at the 2:10 minute mark and then shortly dissolving into a spaced-out 70s groove. If this wasn’t enough to establish the eclecticism of our journey, the title track jumps out with a bit of delightfully twee bossa nova. “Home” snaps back, full of Weezer-esque power chords and slinky slide guitar, which I was not expecting at all, however, I eat it up entirely! Into The Sun cruises just behind the more frenetic, surreal Fantasma (1997) by Cornelius, both representing the finest ideas of pop pastiche, tinged with just the right amount of heartache. It’s like a woozy Brendan Benson and I can’t help but think that Ben Kweller was molded by this sound just four years later. The midpoint is where our sojourn peaks for me with the gleefully sludgy “Spaceship,” the jazzy excursion of “Photosynthesis,” (complete with cosmic freak-out) and into the album’s most Beatles-like track and brightest moment, “Queue.” But at no point do these songs feel burdened by legacy. The last leg of our trip sends us into dissolving light with our seats reclined. And when we finally arrive, there’s a small dance party with handclaps.
The first half of Into The Sun by Sean Lennon feels like a record I would play in my garden on a summer afternoon, just to drift away from reality for a hour or two. It doesn’t grate on the senses, or outstay its welcome, and it’s almost offensive in being non-offensive. Every few seconds or so you get hit around the face with something so reminiscent of the Beatles (“Home” and “Bathtub“), it reminds you this is John Lennon’s son. Then perhaps accentuating that fact, you get a complete 180 turn in direction for the second half of the album starting with a jazzed up six minute musical interlude “Photosynthesis” before drawing you back in with a toe tapping brilliance on the track “Queue.” The album never settles in one direction and keeps you on your toes with a dreamy allure. It starts with the aforementioned mellow haze sweeping into experimental overtones of psychedelia, before later on bringing a further taste of The Beatles with a country tinge on “Part One Of The Cowboy Trilogy“, even delving into a straight up 90s pop track “Breeze.” Despite the lack of cohesion between various tracks, lyrically songs come across as whimsical in nature which makes the album more enjoyable and the fourty-nine minutes and twelve seconds breeze by, no pun intended. As a debut record, there is enough quality and intrigue for me to now go and find Lennon’s further releases, which is really the biggest compliment I can give.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
What’s funny is how quick people are to compare Sean to his father when his mother’s musical influence is much more apparent, and this is coming from someone who has largely avoided her career — probably because of this song most people don’t know exists. But, in the handful of songs I have heard from her, there’s a common thread that I think ties Sean’s work much more to hers than it does to John’s. Listen to “O’Oh” for example and you can instantly locate the origin of Into The Sun‘s more whimsical and bouncy moments. It’s an important distinction to make here, mostly due to how dismissive John was in public of this style, but also because of how desperate Sean seemed to not want to be a Lennon on this record. At times, Into The Sun seems to fly in the face of John’s staggering legacy. It seems almost out of spite too like his dominate use of jazz throughout the record. It’s not out of spite for his father though — you really can’t overlook the call back to “Beautiful Boy” on “Sean’s Theme” — instead, it’s in spite of the public fervor that surrounded that legacy and defined his whole life before he ever recorded a song. There are no grandiose messages or generational anthems here, but instead a beautifully diverse collection of songs that just show Sean as he truly is: a passionate music lover with no real aspirations except to just make art.
Madonna by …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
Chosen By PJ Sykes