Friday, 1 June 2012

REVIEW: Public Image Ltd - This Is PiL

Often, reforming well loved bands after a long period of inactivity is a risky business. This is is certainly true of John Lydon's reactivation of Public Image Ltd, a band who during the late 70's delivered some astonishing, genre defying records. This music was a result of Lydon's deranged vocal delivery, Keith Levene's guitars and of course the characteristic basslines that Jah Wobble contributed. This is perhaps why PiL struggled creatively after Levene and Wobble's departure from the unit, with Lydon continuing to release music with various musicians under the PiL moniker until after a string of poor albums he called an end to the group in the early 90's. 

His 1997 solo effort 'Psycho's Path' was a badly received attempt at a dance reinvention that was so unsuccessful that his label refused to release any more of his music. After mixed reactions to a number of Sex Pistols reunions over the years Lydon seemed to be dead creatively, and to keep himself in the spotlight he had to reduce himself to appearing on reality TV shows amongst a bunch of washed up ex-celebrities and infamously being the face of Country Life butter. His announcement that he was resurrecting Public Image Ltd came as great news for all those who just wanted to hear the man being an artist again. Plus it would have been a shame for PiL to have gone out with 1992's underwhelming 'That What Is Not', so perhaps a top quality new album would put things right. 

The truth is the first new PiL record in 20 years isn't good enough to be heralded as a return to form, although its leaner sound is an improvement on the overdone production of the previous two albums. When many reformed bands are making an effort to play with as many key members as possible, the notoriously stubborn Lydon has opted to bring Public Image Ltd back with a completely new line up that features himself as the sole original member. But it's not the new line up that is the problem here, they work very well providing the instrumentation and have clearly been encouraged to be more than just Lydon's backing band, in fact it sounds like they've spent plenty of time gelling as a unit and finding their sound. But every now and again you get the feeling they're being held back or perhaps even restraining themselves so they don't steal the frontman's thunder. 

They supply a thick and intruiging backdrop to the opening title track, but it gets tiresome as it simply becomes three minutes and 40 seconds of Lydon trying to convince us that "THIS Is PiL" when a lot of people would argue that it really isn't. It's almost like he's sending out a message to Wobble and Levene that they were just replacable musicians who were once lucky enough to be his backing group. Second track 'One Drop' is thankfully a lot better with its skanking guitars, deep bass and an energetic dub rhythm that brings fresh hope for this new PiL. Lydon hasn't sounded this vital in a very long time, his voice once again thriving with terrifying power. 'Deeper Water' is equally brilliant, despite the lyrics consisting of some rather dodgy boating and sea metaphors, a smart atmospheric groove propels the track and is complimented by an infectious guitar line. Unfortunately this quality is not an indication of things to come, and by track four the album has gone downhill rather quickly, as 'Terra-Gate' seems to be lacking in ideas and comes across as thoroughly unremarkable.

'Human' is somewhat pedestrian and lyrically drifts off into rambling passages about the death of England, while 'I Must Be Dreaming' is slightly better, the relaxed funk and Joy Division-like basslines contrasting with Lydon's stark and unmistakable vocals. It's not really good enough to get that excited about but it's a great deal better than the aimless 'It Said That' which lacks any real substance at all. 'The Room I Am In' is an improvement, the band laying out a dark, ambient backdrop while Lydon delivers the unsettling spoken word narrative. Things get better as 'Lollipop Opera' provides one of this record's standout moments, with its warped throbs of bass colliding with thudding multicultural rhythms and more bizarre vocals. Here, the album version overruns like a number of these tracks but even so, it is considerably more enjoyable than the vast majority of this record. 

'Fool' is plodding and unimaginative, exhibiting Lydon at his most monotonous while on 'Reggie Song' he comes across like a third rate parody of himself. 'Out Of The Woods' sounds completely half arsed, and the lazy delivery of some rather dire lyrics doesn't do it any help as the album ends on an underwhelming low. 

The three standout tracks show that Lydon can still come up with moments of brilliance, but sadly such moments are all too rare on this album. A greater degree of quality control would have benefitted this record, but if those working on this project had doubts about some of the tracks, then perhaps they knew that they might as well keep their opinions to themselves, because Lydon is too stubborn to take the criticisms of others on board. The fact that the man considered all of these songs good enough to make up the first Public Image Ltd album in over two decades is perhaps an indication that his ego has got the better of him and his art. 

But like I stated earlier in this review, it's good to hear him making music again, and even though his comeback record often falls flat, it's a relief to know that he hasn't completely lost it after all this time. After all, sometimes he can still unexpectedly pull a great tune out of the bag, but unfortunately this doesn't happen enough. 5.5

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