Who, or what, are Public Image? Are they a band with a 30-plus year history, back after a two-decade hiatus from recording with their ninth studio album? Or are they, as some would insist, a ‘band’ that has long since ceased to be anything other than The John Lydon Project?
Certainly, Lydon is currently making great efforts to stress that this is Public Image – It’s right up there on the album sleeve, as well as being the disc’s eponymous opening track. ‘Lucky you’, he burps, ‘you are now entering a PiL zone.’ Which begs the further questions – given that the departure of Wobble and Levine is such ancient history – Why is he so insistent that this album represents the definitive article? And why now?
Of course, this may have something to do with the recent attempts by Levine and Wobble to perform instrumental excerpts from ‘Metal Box’ in Japan – an event which Mojo reported that Lydon was prepared to take legal action in order to prevent. Alternatively, the vocalist might simply be putting into practice some of the profitable tactics for self-publicity that he picked up from Malcolm McLaren all those years ago. We could always ask, but I wouldn’t count on getting a straight answer.
The proof then, of this here pudding, lies in the eating. As ‘This is PiL’ gets underway amid a anodyne rumble of world muzak noodled out by his backing band (a trio of muso veterans comprised of Lu Edmunds, former Spice Girls bassist Scott Firth, and drummer Bruce Smith), Lydon’s grandiloquent claims begin to take on the aspect of a King Canute figure, raging at the waves that have long since engulfed him.
Lyrically, much of the album is concerned with Lydon getting somewhat dewey-eyed over his youth and background – a somewhat counter-intuitive move given his oft-stated distaste for nostalgia, which undermines idea that ‘This Is PiL’ is in any sense progressive. Such Proustian reverie first becomes evident in the disc’s initial single ‘One Drop’, wherein Lydon indulges himself with a spot of self-indulgent ethnocentric mythologizing over Finsbury Park in the 1970s. As Edmunds delivers some Levine-like chorus heavy guitar (or electric mandolin, sonic banjo, or whatever kind of pretentious fucking oud he’s picked up at the medina), John dons a grass skirt and grabs his rolling ‘r’ maracas to deliver a sermon on the past and the benefits of staying young. This is religion. John’s religion.
For an album that is supposed to represent PiL’s future, its frontman’s past hangs heavy across the disc like a fog waiting to be dispersed by the fresh wind of new ideas. Described by Lydon as ‘an improv’, the liquid jam of ‘One Take’ finds him on another submarine mission for you, baby. The aquatic motif is beaten senseless as banks of synths and suitably watery bass guitar provide a background of inconsequential meandering that exists solely to provide a screen onto which Lydon can project his message of comfortable defiance. This is bor-ring, John. At least on ‘Terra-Gate’ he manages to dredge up some reasonably convincing lyrical opprobrium. However, it sounds like he’s being backed by Martha and the Muffins.
By the time we get to ‘Human’ Lydon’s affected over-pronunciation finally moves from amusing, through tiresome, to utterly ridiculous across the course of one endlessly drawn out ‘ed-u-cayt-shyoun’. ‘Listen to me’, he opines, decrying leader’s while simultaneously setting himself up as a demagogue. Having fled London for sunny, opulent Venice Beach, ‘Human’ represents an elegy for England, which evidently Lydon has only recently noticed has stopped dreaming and corked it. Such lachrymose reverie can be put down to the ruminant qualities of middle age. What did you tell us about old dinosaurs that have outlived their purpose, John? Musically, the track is best described as really rather poxy.
More languid backing ushers in ‘I’m Only Dreaming’ as the band deliver a well-rendered impression of a group of complacent, ageing session men, while John occupies himself (which presumably is who the album’s aimed at after all, so fair play) with some solipsistic self-exploratory gibberish. Ultimately, this comes across as being self-regarding, self-satisfied, smug. Where have I heard that before? This is John, and it is disappointing.
At least you get a laugh with ‘It Said That’. It’s basically Lydon Hears A Hoo. While Edmunds runs through his comprehensive repertoire of Allez Ali Baba Levantine clichés, the prat in the hat goes rat-a-tat-tat. ‘The Room I Am In’ is equally inconsequential, read like a fourth former in a strop and permeated by the kind of self-congratulatory chuckles one more usually associates with John Motson, Lydon wearily vituperates about council flats and drugs, bemoaning his inability to see large orbs through his window. Never mind the large orbs, the room Lydon is in is a cell marked ‘Lydon’ and it’s wholly his creation.
In the same way that the most extreme track on Public Image’s debut album pointed the way forward to ‘Metal Box’, ‘Lollipop Opera’ emerges as an engagingly antic slice of white ragga, which indicates that Lydon might be better served by carrying on like Lee Perry rather than seeking to emulate the cynical commercial ruses impressed upon him by his surrogate anti-father. Despite ebing a nicely unhinged bite of fly-agaricism, the track does begin to feel interminable after about half of its near seven-minute running time.
After the nearest thing to the album’s best track, comes ‘Fool’ – the nadir. Entirely dispensable, and supported by some bland, accomplished, going-through-the-motions musicianship, the track has Lydon coming over all Billie Holliday – which is possibly even worse than it sounds. Another tedious personal drama.
More happily, the worryingly named ‘Reggie Song’ contains none of the god-awful cod reggae that its title suggests. Instead, it concerns itself with a bloke named Reginald and some more references to Lydon’s Highbury and Islington heritage – a kind of ‘What Became Of The Lucre Lad’. Closer, ‘Out Of The Woods’ pulls up just short of rhyming ‘moon’ with ‘june’. A ramble in the Night Garden with Tangerine Dream, the track plods along for ages, imparting a becalmed sense of ‘here we are’ (as opposed to a more dynamic ‘here we go’). ‘We are good’, insists Lydon, breaking into the present tense for a moment.
He’s wrong, though. ‘This Is PiL’ is not good. It lacks any of the anger, passion, or energy that infused Lydon’s best work. Any idea that the album possess an experimental aspect is equally false, as the band that he has put together fail to produce anything new, or even present something old in a new way. Lydon may genuinely believe that this album is somehow relevant and incisive, but he’s a salesman with a proven track record of successfully selling John Lydon, the product. Of course, he’ll insist that any criticism represents our failure to recognise his genius, but then Mike Oldfield used to say things like that.
At the time of the first royal jubilee, Lydon represented something. Today he simply represents himself. He has become his own tribute band. If he really was everything he’d like you to believe he is he’d be Mark E Smith.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been failed? Not cheated, just let down.