Over the last few years, Public Image Ltd. and former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon has labeled Radiohead “tosh,” U2 “a band that never should have existed,” Jay-Z “nonsense,” and Ozzy Osbourne “a senile delinquent.” Yes, it looks like PiL really is back, and after a few years of touring they’ve now given us their first studio effort in 20 years, entitled This Is PiL. Only this time, their bite doesn’t quite match their bark.
The album starts off on its worst note. Although clearly not written to be anything more than an introduction, “This Is PiL,” which occupies the leadoff spot, quickly wears out its welcome with its self-indulgence. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for PiL, as indulgence is almost a given for a band whose best albums regularly opened with 9+ minute songs. But this is a different kind of indulgence, and there’s really no payoff to it. The lyrics consist solely of John Lydon belching and bellowing through several iterations of the line “This is PiL” over lackluster instrumental backing. The leadoff single, “One Drop,” follows.
“One Drop” shows a lot of potential with its grimy dub guitar parts and a killer hook, which showcases a surprisingly undiminished singing voice on Lydon’s end. But it’s brought to a standstill by agonizingly troll lyrics before it can even get out of the gate. “You cannot change us/Cannot explain us/And that’s what makes us/We are the ageless/We are teenagers.” As heartening as it is to see that Lydon hasn’t lost the youthful spirit that made him such an electrifying frontman over the years, pretending that no time has passed and that they are still, in fact, teenagers, is not the optimal way of going about a reunion. It just sounds out of touch.
There’s certainly something to be said about PiL’s return to the dub-based post-punk sounds they pioneered on now-classic albums such as First Issue and Metal Box. They’ve (thankfully) abandoned the polished dance-rock that permeated their mid-to-late 80’s output, and instead have managed to revisit the sounds that made them good without completely rehashing them. With such solid instrumental backing for the majority of the record (the title track being the exception), it’s perhaps to little surprise that John Lydon is the make-or-break factor for many of the songs on This Is PiL.
“Deeper Water” is an improvement over everything before it. Matching perilous, nautical lyrics about fighting a storm with serpentine, Chameleons-esque guitar; it’s everything PiL still does well with none of the pitfalls. “Terra-Gate” is another step up lyrically, revolving around a series of tongue-twisters rhyming with the song’s title. What really sells the song though is Lydon’s performance, in which he is able to convey more urgency than most singers half his age without sounding like he’s even trying too hard.
Another highlight is the abstract “The Room I Am In,” a metaphor about drugs that shifts subtly from solemn to sour while describing a conceptual room within the narrator’s mind that he cannot escape. But immediately following this potential high water mark is the exceedingly irritating “Lollipop Opera,” which is nearly seven minutes of bouncing drums and gratingly nonsensical lyrics. “Out Of The Woods,” is a classic PiL closer, approaching ten minutes of rhythm section-anchored dub jamming with Lydon indulging in his ramblings for one last time. Only this time, it’s the right kind of indulgence, as Lydon sounds particularly inspired and is able to inject a healthy dose of paranoia into what would otherwise be more nonsensical lyrics.
In an interview conducted soon after the band’s reformation, Lydon said “The money that I earned from that [a commercial] has now gone completely – lock stock and barrel – into reforming PiL.” When Lydon is at his best, like on “Deeper Water” and “The Room I Am In,” this reunion album seems to justify all the stock that was put into it. But for each peak, there is an equally abject nadir that turns This Is PiL into a questionable endeavor. It’s an album that alternates between being rewarding and punishing, which, when you think about it, is kind of fitting, because the same could be said of the career of the man who is the creative force behind it: the one and only John Lydon.