Album: Public Image Ltd, "This is PiL" (PiL Official)
It's never easy to tell when John Lydon is putting us on -- "We are the ageless!" he sings through his middle-aged face on "One Drop," which opens the first PiL album in 20 years; "we are teenagers!" Then something about coming from chaos and the causing of commotion.
Meanwhile a series of butter commercials starring the former and sometimes Johnny Rotten streams nearly endlessly on British television: "It's about great butter, not Great Britain," the Voice assures us, while the eyes dart helplessly from side to side, looking for any sort of plausible escape mechanism.
But he's always been putting us on, so even when he's earnest, he has to sell it in a specific sort of way that is not necessary with most performers. You kind of feel like John Lydon albums should come with a mood ring that glows various colors depending on his level of engagement with the material. The burp and hiccups that lead off "This is Pil" should cause a bright ochre flare to appear on the band around your finger: "This is PiL!" he exclaims. "Public Image Limited!" in case you didn't get the memo. It's just shouting and repetition, but these are qualities that mark every PiL work from "First Issue" to lesser annoyances like 1992's "help I'm lost in a world that I helped created and no longer understand" would-be swan song "That What Is Not." Shouting and repeating, shouting and repeating. It's Lydon's verbal equivalent to the Rope-a-Dope.
There's no obvious knockout payoff here; "One Drop" proceeds gamely forward, this latest crop of Lydon and associates calling forth a punk-ska shuffle straight from '79. "Deeper Water" plunges into murkier depths -- is that a Craig Scanlonesque guitar riff poking out from the foliage like a big bell hook, covered in seaweed and dripping with unidentifiable flecks of Andy Gill? Where does he want to drag us with it? The tune chugs on far too long, but it feels very much like a return to Lydon's happy place. Is he getting old or just nostalgic? Sex Pistols reunion, Queen's jubilee, new PiL -- it's like being driven around town by your grandpa and having him point out places he used to take his dates, locations that live only in his mind, and are now Pizza Huts and CVS pharmacies.
"Human" is a nearly perfect PiL song, a vamping, throbbing slow-burner with a question mark of a lyric that perpetually climbs up Escher-type stairs that only seem to fold back onto themselves. "Because I'm human I've just been thinking about getting it right," Lydon insists. "I'm only seeking because I'm human." Lydon has long used PiL as a vehicle to explore rhetorical maps at length without committing to putting down homesteading roots; in a way it's comforting to find him still willing to roam the back forty of his mind, and do it so publicly. "I Must Be Dreaming" continues in a similar vein -- how can one remain human in a world that so deftly robs humanity? -- but accompanied this time by a capering, thick-bottomed disco-beat. It's hard to call it "retro" since it's the same thing he was doing 30 years ago -- the world has come back around to Lydon in some ways.
Aside from a few noisy clunkers -- the inescapably boring "The Room I Am In" and the effervescently cloying "Reggie Song," which comes off like an advertising jingle writer's notion of what a John Lydon song should sound like -- the album is remarkably fresh-sounding for most of its running time, with a feel centered somewhere between Now and Then but rarely seeming lost in the kind of indeterminate, Rip Van Winkle-like fog that settles over so many acts returning from long layoffs with well-intended comeback releases. The closing "Out of the Woods," in fact, is nine minutes of Lydon in an expansive, explorative mood, packing the same sort of propulsive dancehall provisions he packed into his "Metal Box" so many decades ago. It could be a club hit right now, if only you could find the right club; to Lydon's everlasting credit, he'll never stop looking for it.