A belch and a groan and a “Lucky you!” get the ball rolling for This is PiL, Public Image Limited’s first album in 20 years. It’s sort of John Lydon’s new way of saying “This is what you want, this is what you get”. Through the drama of Lydon pulling the plug on the promotional duties of his 1997 solo album, Psycho’s Path, becoming a spokesperson for butter, reuniting the Sex Pistols for a tour, and generally letting his big mouth take him wherever it will, we’ve all pined for new material in some form or another. And when 20 years fly by, people are naturally curious to hear if there are 20 years worth of growth in the sound. What does PiL sound like in 2012? In the spirit of a punk kid who has learned to adapt to middle age in a post-everything pop culture where irony and sincerity are constantly being mistaken for one another, Lydon begins the album with a burp…and an unceremonious one at that.
The more technical answer is that the 2012 Public Image Limited sounds roughly the way you think it should. Less heavy that 1992’s That What Is Not and far less electronic than Lydon’s solo album, This is PiL updates the sound of the band without making it trendy. The guitar sounds are full-bodied with clean reverb, and the rhythm section continues to be the tight anchor upon which PiL has built its foundation. Lydon’s voice has developed a rasp from years of yelping (wouldn’t yours?) but prefers to exploit it rather than use effects to obfuscate it. As expected, the personnel have shifted again. With Lu Edmonds on guitar, Scott Firth on bass, and Bruce Smith on drums, they do a remarkable job of capturing the sound of the PiL of old while never sounding antiquated. It’s either an indication of Lydon’s dominance over the group, a testament to his abilities to pick the right musicians, or most likely a combination of the two.
John Lydon has been known to compare Africa to the Garden of Eden. The continent’s romance is a likely source of inspiration for Pulic Image Limited’s heavy use of repetition. No matter the lyrical subject matter (and some of it is heavily nostalgic), the music continues to spin around and around, luring you so far into a trance that you may not notice that the final track “Out of the Woods” is nearly ten minutes long. The words and music continue to operate at cross purposes; the band flexes highly danceable beats while Lydon takes on many trips in and around his memory. He uses both “One Drop” and “Reggie Song” to announce that he is from London, but he’s also careful to remind us that this doesn’t really matter. His cautionary drug tale “The Room I Am In” works in a manner similar to “Religion” from PiL’s debut; recitation of a poem, which then gets set to music. His view of the political leaders from his homeland has unsurprisingly not softened over time, referring them to “bristled bastards” in “Deeper Water” that are “not good enough for you” in “Human”. “England’s died!”, he proclaims in the latter. And take a wild guess where he’s rather be? “Shine like a beacon in the Garden of Eden / There are no bad seasons /no reasons for leaving”. Only “Fool” allows things to descend into a deep funk. Edmonds doesn’t even bother to correct his mistakes.
The one song with the most impact is the one that PiL put the least amount of effort into arranging. Lydon told Rolling Stone that “Deeper Water” was a group improvisation done in one take. Lu Edmonds sounds the bells the moment Smith pushes the boat into the water. Lydon takes his voice from the top of his register to the bottom, letting the deep echoes carry the sound outward while Edmonds switches back and forth between a clean upper register jangle and a descending line pointing to the boat’s doom. When John Lydon sings “I will not drown”, it doesn’t sound too confident. It sounds like a guy who just tied a knot in the rope before hoping for the best.
PiL still has power. If John Lydon and his current crew of misfits continue to stay the course, we are going to see some classic works that’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the band’s commercial and artistic heyday. You could already make that case for This is PiL. Lucky us.