BOSTON — Julian Lennon is used to the scrutiny his every musical move brings.
In the seven years between his last album, "Help Yourself," and the stateside release of his newest, "Photograph Smile" (Fuel 2000), curiosity about the doings of John Lennon's first son has, if anything, increased.
That's because in the early '90s, he intentionally left the limelight. Lennon (son of John and his first wife, Cynthia) retreated to his home in northern Italy, battered by his indenture to a label that expected a hit-making machine after the Top-10 success of his debut album, "Valotte."
As soon as he decided on a career in music in his early 20s, Lennon ran into the peculiar conundrum of being John's son: If he sounded like dad, Julian was somehow capitalizing on his martyred, nearly sainted father's memory. If he tried not to, he was foolishly ignoring his legacy as the son of one of the great figures in popular music.
He's carried that weight a long time, but on a recent tour, Lennon told reporters and fans he's done so long enough. Each night, before he performs the first song on "Photograph Smile," "I Don't Wanna Know," he tells how he came to write the catchy, oughta-be-a-hit tune.
"After s-o-o-o many years of the critics and the comparisons - 'You sound like your dad; you sound like the Beatles!' " Lennon says he finally decided to have some fun with his fifth album.
With an endearing blend of charm and wit, he announces, "This time, I decided to do it intentionally. Now that we both recognize this - and have for the last 15 years - it's time to move on!"
One wants to cheer him on, and most critics have been doing exactly that, heralding "Photograph Smile" as his best effort yet. While "Valotte" spawned three hits, including the title tune and the No. 1 "Too Late for Goodbyes," its followups, "The Secret Value of Daydreaming," "Mr. Jordan," and "Help Yourself," are universally considered dismissible - even by Lennon himself.
In a recent episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" biography series, Lennon said of his new album, "This is my baby. For me, this is my first album, really." It's also the first on which he called the shots (with co-producer Bob Rose).
Lennon apparently inherited more of his father's physical traits than did his half-brother, Sean, who began his own music career a few years ago and is now touring as the bass player in his girlfriend's band, Cibo Matto. Sean released his debut solo album, "Into the Sun," last year, and has been working on material for a follow-up.
Julian's latest disc stands as a terrific example of pop music craftsmanship. That he accepts and builds on his family history is what elevates it to almost thrilling.
Even his piano playing and songwriting sound strikingly reminiscent, yet they're not at all derivative. Somehow, this Lennon pulls off the rare feat of reflecting a sound without merely mimicking it.
For any other musician, being called "Beatlesque" would be a compliment. For Lennon, it's a sticky issue - one he pointedly tries to deflect by dedicating "Photograph Smile" to his late stepfather, Roberto Bassanini, whom he publicly claims as his "real" dad.
Still, Fab Four references, both sly and playful, are peppered throughout. "Way to Your Heart" is filled with allusions to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." "And She Cries" provokes even more obvious comparisons, featuring a George Harrison-like slide guitar intro.
Throughout "Photograph Smile," Lennon cannily exploits the soundtrack of his life - on his own terms - and pop music fans are better off for it.
*For more information online, log on to www.julianlennon.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society