Yoko Ono Wrestles With Her Past On Yes, I’m A Witch Too

Ono enlists younger artists to put a softer edge on her fearlessly experimental catalogue

Yoko Ono’s Yes, I’m a Witch Too is the sequel to 2007’s Yes, I’m a Witch – a remix album wherein Ono revisits her archive and reworks select songs with help from contemporary artists. As with most of Ono’s work, the concept is simple, but the execution is not.

Ono has a strong, quivering, appropriately witchlike voice that has always lent itself well to experimentation, dating back to her early work with Ornette Coleman. Like the first album in her Witch series, the latest installment calls in a cast of younger musicians who attempt (in Ono’s words) to “finish” her music, including Death Cab for Cutie, Peter Bjorn and John, tUnE-yArDs, Miike Snow, and Moby.

These collaborators ensure that much of Yes, I’m a Witch Too sounds familiar, as the remixes repackage Ono’s avant-garde chanting into comfortable pop structures – ballads, new wave, disco. Synthesizers smooth out the jagged edges in her lyrics; new harmonies file down atonal spaces. On her own, Ono is most often a screamer, an ice queen, a conceptual trailblazer. Here, the music brings the audience closer and makes Ono as pop-palatable as she may ever be.

Part of this has to do with the fact that the songs chosen for this remix compilation were some of Ono’s more accessible ones to begin with. “She Gets Down on Her Knees” and “Dogtown” (both from 1981’s Season of Glass) and “I Have a Woman Inside My Soul” (from 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe) are among the more friendly ballads Ono has ever made, and the latter remains one of the most tender downtempo tracks in her catalogue. On the new album, Penguin Prison’s upgrade of “She Gets Down on Her Knees” is a sterling disco groove uniquely capable of standing up to Ono’s vocals. Her son Sean Lennon’s remix of “Dogtown,” meanwhile, finds Ono sounding more welcoming and jazzy than she has in recent years; there’s a warmth in this remix that one would be hard-pressed to find on previous collaborations.

Still, Yes, I’m a Witch Too doesn’t get us much closer to understanding Ono’s personality or perspective; if anything, these songs often feel as though they’ve placed her further out of view. Club legend Danny Tenaglia’s take on 1981’s classic “Walking on Thin Ice,” with its weeping classical overture, distances Ono’s typically immediate vocals. The newly blown-out riffs of 1973’s “Coffin Car” (courtesy of L.A. rockers Automatique) give what was once a pleasantly languorous tune an unwelcome, over-the-top rockist vibe. Miike Snow’s take on the already bouncy Approximately Infinite Universe cut “Catman” is sped up with saccharine electronic glitches bracketed by the contrasting motifs of “Pac Man noise” and “helium voice.”

The reworks that succeed best on this album are slow-gestating grooves, expertly conveying Ono’s dimension through immersive, danceable loops. The once-challenging “Soul Got Out of the Box,” from 2001’s Blueprint for a Sunrise, gets a lush new remix from Portugal. The Man, who swathe it in enriching vocal layers and acoustic guitar melodies. Cibo Matto’s take on 1980’s “Yes, I’m Your Angel” is roiling and intriguingly circuitous. And 1971’s “Mrs. Lennon” and 1969’s “No Bed for Beatle John” – tracks that were simultaneously cheeky, irreverent, and profoundly sad, addressing everything from Ono’s stereotyping as a usurper-wife to her 1968 miscarriage – are fleshed out with renewed exuberance. “No Bed for Beatle John” was originally recorded at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London in the aftermath of the miscarriage. In the course of the song, which also addresses the controversial nude sleeve of Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Ono and Lennon read press clippings about themselves. Now, on a remix by U.K. producer Ebony Bones!, lyrics like “There is a good chance for the baby’s survival” are rendered all the more heartbreaking as they are cast in the dark shadows of hindsight, buried in a deluge of forward-churning beats. Here and elsewhere, the remixes that bury Ono’s voice do so as a way of bringing her vision down to scale, making the concepts driving her music easier to understand. “It seems easier for us if I don’t show all of myself,” Ono croons on “Forgive Me My Love,” and the line reads like an appropriate mission statement for the album as a whole.

The most important thing that Yes, I’m a Witch Too achieves is bridging the gap between past and present, in all of Ono’s iteration. In that way, this remix project mirrors our shifting visions and reverence for Ono, the many roles she has played in culture, the freighted understandings of what and who Yoko Ono is as a musical artist. Few of these songs surrender themselves up for easy listening; they fit with the rich complexity of the last 50 years of her work, the joy of it being that you have to wrestle with it, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll win.