There’s a fury at the core of Yoko Ono’s 1973 rock opus Approximately Infinite Universe that was not apparent on previously recorded efforts. Ono has always been a master of turning pain and sadness into art, but here, there’s a clenched-fist intensity that sets it apart in her deep, unparalleled catalogue. Ono is angry. She proved that one can carry a boundless love for humanity and still be furious — furious at male/female relationships, at war, at your partner. Meanwhile, on a sonic level, Ono ups the ante on the more centered rock-n-roll sounds she approached with 1971’s Fly. Backed by members of New York band Elephant’s Memory, with limited guitar contributions from John Lennon (listed as “Joel Nohnn”), the album is also one of the most traditional-sounding rock chapters in Ono’s sprawling catalogue. There are moments here that absolutely rival Jersey legends the E Street Band, though of course Ono’s vision leads her band down darker, more mystical paths than the E Street Band ever dared tread. Approximately Infinite Universe is an essential and progressive piece of Ono’s output, both in the advancements she made as a songwriter/conceptualist, and as a solidified statement of her staunch feminist role within the very male-dominated mainstream rock ghetto of the mid-1970’s.
The two record set lays back considerably in density and sonic chaos. Elephant’s Memory accommodate Ono’s intimate, almost hushed vocals with tasteful bluesy, organ-laced grooves that put a focus on her delivery and heartfelt lyrics, almost in the same way the Velvet Underground’s third album developed in the sonically-scorched path of White Light White Heat. “Death of Samantha” exudes a smoky lounge aura of self-confidence in this newfound musical environ, while simultaneously depicting an ongoing pain, no doubt reflecting on inner turmoil Ono was going through in her relationship with Lennon during the album’s recording. But in pain, as always, comes Ono’s strength, and the dichotomy of her own personal relationship vs. those between men and women of the world rings loud and clear through the subtleties in these grooves. Opener “Yang Yang” spits some pretty venomous words at Lennon while simultaneously offering solutions (“Come out and join us/Join the revolution”); The fired-up “What A Mess” is an unforgiving rant about inequality, money and power. Here, Ono stands up and makes Approximately her album in its truest sense. Its assertion is clear, and while her lyrical stance about dominating males messing up her/our world is aggressive, songs like “What A Bastard the World Is” and “I Want My Love To Rest Tonight” also go on to reflect wounded longing and need to be a part of her love’s life, the latter’s lyrics offering “Sisters don’t blame your man too much/You know he’s doing his best.” She stands with conviction and strength.
Add this powerful feminist statement to the fact that the music business in 1973 was in its post-Woodstock explosion: A&R men, radio programmers, marketing execs, booking agents: men with a chokehold over the business, and Yoko’s entry into it a complete question mark to them all. Ono absolutely intended to boggle the boys’ club of the music industry. Fast forward to today, and Approximately Infinite Universe stands as a template for powerful female artists to follow in the years ahead.