In a general sense, a clone is an exact copy, be it an organism or a machine. We’ve all seen films and read stories about cloning – cloning a dead child in order to “bring them back to life” or cloning oneself multiple times to spread out the daily burdens of life. In reality, the potential problems are near incomprehensible, but in the fictional realms of literature and film, any problem that arises always seems rooted in the personality, because, no matter how exact a copy something is, the soul (and by extension the personality) cannot be copied. It may look, smell, and sound like the same, but it isn’t. This logic applies to the new album from Public Image, Ltd., This Is PiL. On the surface, it looks and sounds (somewhat) like P.I.L., but in the end, it’s a rather soulless copy.
I have ebbed and flowed with regards to listening to Public Image’s music ever since I was turned on to them around the time The Flowers of Romance was released. Over nearly 30 years, I have heard the band called Public Image, Public Image Limited, and P.I.L. (with each letter pronounced). I had never heard anyone non-mistakenly refer to the band as Pil (pronounced “pill’). That is until I heard this album’s opening title track. Lydon screams “This is Pil!” over and over as if he’s re-branding his own band with a different name. Or maybe it’s just Lydon’s snide way of telling us we’ve been pronouncing it wrong all these years.
The album’s initial single “One Drop” (no relation to the Bob Marley track) contains perhaps some of the effort’s most dub-like elements (all of which reappear later on tracks like “Lollipop Opera”), components of P.I.L.’s music since its beginnings, but something Lydon now feels he must defend with lyrics like “I’m not a vulture, this is my culture.” Perhaps it’s because today’s audience is filled with people more familiar with the sounds of dub as expressed via dubstep/brostep artists like Skrillex rather than the true roots of dub via the hands of Mad Professor or Lee “Scratch” Perry, that Lydon feels he must declare he isn’t on a bandwagon. But there was a time when Lydon wouldn’t have defended anything he did to anyone.
P.I.L.’s early work has been regarded as some of the most innovative music in post-punk, helping to define the movement. That, however, was due in large part to the band, not just Lydon. Early Public Image featured Jah Wobble on bass and guitarist Keith Levene, both of whom left by the band’s fourth album. On this new album, the only major aural throwback to Wobble’s loose and fluid bass appears on “Human”. It’s an odd irony that if anything is really redeemable on This Is PiL, it’s the band, who hold it together enough to create strong rhythm sections but not enough to help give the album any real life.
Throughout This Is PiL, there are other hints and allegations of crimes past beyond simply including dub effects or a loose bass. On “The Room I Am In”, effectively a spoken word piece of Lydon’s drug issues surrounded by the band noodling about on their instruments, the minimalism is vaguely reminiscent of the experimentation heard on First Edition and Metal Box/Second Edition but in a far less acerbic or electrified manner. Possibly the darkest toned track on the album,“It Said That” opens up slightly to reveal a guitar line akin to a more proggy and twisted “Disappointed” with the darkness carrying over to later track “Fool”. With “Deeper Water”, the backing chorus refrains the titular phrase and shimmering guitar line, arching towards classic tracks like “Bodies”, which helps make this song more palatable..
The obligatory factoid regarding this album is that it’s the first P.I.L. album in 20 years. It might as well just be said that it’s the first album of any significance by John Lydon in 20 years. P.I.L. is John Lydon now, and vice versa. Gone are the days when Public Image was an actual band and not just a vehicle for Lydon and whomever he brought along for the ride. Fans learned not to expect the same old, same old from Lydon (especially after Wobble and Levene left) but they did expect consistency, an obtuse, yet well-honed delivery, a particularly sneering attitude, and, most certainly, challenging material willing to push and break barriers. Sometimes it was amazing as on Metal Box/Second Edition; sometimes it was bland and faceless as on Live In Tokyo, an album recorded by Lydon and hired guns just playing the parts, with no emotionality; other times, as with Album or 9, it simply coasted along. For the most of its play time, the songs on This Is PiL lack any lyrical adventure and refuse to take any risks. The music is not as soulless or artificial as on Live In Tokyo, but it’s a far cry from the band’s classic first two albums. There is better in Lydon. I just hope I don’t have to wait another 20 years to hear it.
Essential Tracks: “Deeper Water”