Neil Young, of course, had the first word about the
performance artist known as Johnny Rotten: Better to burn out than it is to
rust. But that was the whole idea of the Johnny Rotten character, arguably a
co-creation of thespian John Lydon and choreographer Malcolm McLaren: to
arrive, explode, and disappear.
One thing Lydon may have learned from that well-remembered
yet fading era is that it may be better to be underappreciated than overrated.
Public Image Ltd. was the intentionally banal brand Lydon created in 1978 as
the antithesis to the Sex Pistols, a fungible trade name that could encompass
almost anything. Yet over the years PiL has become a reliable manufacturer and
distributor of bass-heavy third-stream rock, whose experiments led the way to
styles from drum’nbass to trip-hop. It has become such a durable brand that it
could be warehoused for 20 years – a generation – since its last album and
reemerge in the no-longer young 21st century better than ever.
Only those who believed Rotten (and younger Lydon’s)
incendiary rhetoric will raise an eyebrow or two over the musical membership
and recording location of This is PiL.
You’re supposed to react with a frisson of bemusement to the information
announcing the album’s appearance, that it was recorded in the Cotswolds, one
of the most gorgeous, pastoral parts of England, at the studio of Steve
Winwood. So bemused I am. Similarly, though original PiLs Jah Wobble and Keith
Levene are long gone, the bass player, and therefore most prominent
instrumentalist – is Scott Firth, who has not only played with Winwood, but
with Elvis Costello, John Martyn, Belinda Carlisle and the Spice Girls reunion
tour. This association-by-association with the pop mainstream may have once
induced capillary twitches in Lydon himself. But there’s no smirking here:
listen to the first 20 seconds of opening track “This is PiL,” and
you can hear that Firth’s thunderous, precise bass lines can carry this band
without a wobble.
The other members, guitarist/percussionist Lu Edmonds
(ex-Damned), and drummer/percussionist Bruce Smith (formerly the Slits and the
Pop Group) have been with Lydon in PiL since 1986. A 2009 tour helped freshen
memories and familiarize Firth.
For a group once more focused on sound than songwriting,
there are some memorable tunes here. “One Drop” is the best teenage
vampire song of the Twilight era, a
testament to eternal youth, if not eternal life, with bedrock reggae on both
the track and on the mic. Here, as well as on “Reggie [cq] Song” and
other tracks, Lydon’s obstreperous diction and I-maican (Irish-Jamaican) patois
strike a cheery balance. The dryly narrated “The Room I Am In,” by
contrast, shows the singer empathizing sadly with the diminished horizons and
dead-end drug culture of the council flats from which he escaped. Many of the
songs deal with political events and trends unique to England. “Lollipop
Opera” is as Brit-referential as anything by Paul Weller, Damon Albarn, or
the young Ray Davies.
Easily absorbing subcurrents from Bollywood and bhangra
(“Deeper Water”) to fear-of-nature horror film soundtracks (“Out
of the Woods”), This is PiL never wanders far from that fierce bass and pulsing percussion at its core.
This album, it should be mentioned, was self-funded by PiL, and is released on
its own PiL Official label (distributed by Redeye in the U.S. and Cargo U.K in
Britain.) Untainted by outside corporate money, PiL has no shareholders to
please but itself. Which just might be an aspect of its excellence in the
sphere of what used to be known as mass entertainment, today known as rock
Drop,” “Out of the Woods” WAYNE ROBINS