The title of Jimmy Cliff’s latest offering, Rebirth, would appear to be a bit of a misnomer on first impression. In a career that continues to span over four decades, the reggae superstar has sold in excess of 25 million records and was recently canonized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so it’s not exactly as if he’s had to claw his way back from oblivion. That said, the record does have a rejuvenated feel to it, even as its 13 tracks tackle the same rustic, feel-good reggae vibes Cliff has long made his trademark. Rebirth’s cover art, boasting a silhouette of Cliff surrounded by rays of light, tells the tale. It’s a depiction of an artist touched by inspiration, even as he’s decades into an already storied career.
Credit this to Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who produced the Rebirth sessions and injected the music with spirited, lively flavor. He may be a few generations removed from Cliff, who was a mainstay of the ’60s and ’70s ska and rocksteady movement; but Armstrong has spent much of his career trying to replicate those same sounds with Rancid. The younger musician has an unrivaled ear for those tinny, wonderfully underdubbed sounds that gave the likes of Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and King Tubby their raw energy. And on Rebirth, Cliff sounds enlivened by having found a new ally. It’s a textbook case of the student meeting the master, one where two kindred spirits bridge the generation gap to find their way to the same place.
A mix of original songs and a few well-chosen covers, Rebirth doesn’t flip the script as much as play to strengths. When you’ve been in the game as long as Cliff has, there’s little use in attempting to draw him out of his comfort zone. Instead, Armstrong creates an atmosphere for the reggae legend to settle in, get comfortable, and thrive. Recorded live in studio without so much as an overdub in sight, the record harkens back to the spirited Jamaican vibes popularized and largely perfected on albums like The Harder They Come and Another Cycle.
“World Upside Down” leads things off with a jaunty calypso rhythm, skittering guitar, and Cliff’s soapbox-style pleas against social injustice (“What’s wrong with humanity/ Have they lost their sanity/ For the sake of vanity?”). “One More”, with its vibrant horn section, is the album’s mission statement. When Cliff passionately bellows “I’ve got one more song I must sing/ A simple song/ Sing along,” it’s a bold declaration of purpose, letting listeners know he’s still kicking, lest they thought otherwise.
Other tracks do an equally admirable job of harnessing ska and reggae’s golden age. The honestly titled “Reggae Music”, Cliff’s valentine to the music that has inspired him his whole life, is bouncy and uptempo enough to make even the most lead-footed of listeners move their feet, while tracks like “Outsider” and “Blessed Love” crackle and pop with similar vintage charm.
The cover songs carry as much weight and fervent impact as the original material. “Guns of Brixton”, a cornerstone of The Clash’s magnum opus London Calling, is given fair treatment, even if it’s a pared down, reggae-fied version of the original. It doesn’t best The Clash’s version (how can you?), but it’s a fully realized, thoughtful cover, one that goes in its own direction without straying too far from the source material. Even better is Cliff’s cover of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho”, which transforms Armstrong’s own mid-’9os punk anthem into a skittering ska joint, to tasteful results. It takes a certain leap of faith to willingly put your own song in someone else’s hands, but in the case of Cliff, there are few better hands in which to place it.
The temptation is to call Rebirth a throwback. It locks in and swings like Alton Ellis, has the sociopolitical edge of Bob Marley, and is touched with the stand-up musicianship of the Skatalites. But the record is much more than a casual rehashing of the past. Instead, Rebirth is a labor of love from one of the genre’s true spirits and a producer with enough smarts, history, and fanaticism to recapture the genre’s highwater era in full. It might fall a notch or two short of Cliff’s inspired early period works, but it’s not far off. In the end, Rebirth’s greatest reward is the proof it provides that the reggae master hasn’t lost touch with the spirit, attitude, and sounds of the music that has long since made him a legend.
Essential Tracks: “One More”, “Reggae Music”