What the World Needs Now…never feels like it’s losing a war against its own imitators.
With the release of What the World Needs Now…, Public Image Ltd.’s second album since John Lydon brought the group out of retirement in 2009, it’s difficult not to reflect upon the peculiar circumstances that made such a reunion possible. The post-scarcity landscape of the internet age, combined with the corresponding redrawing of the canon, has resulted in a market where brilliant musical acts who experienced limited commercial success in their heyday can receive a new lease on life. It’s truly heartening to know that influential artists like the Pixies, Gang of Four and the Pop Group get to reap the benefits of the musical milieu they helped create, and if a new generation of fans gets a chance to see them ply their trade on the stage, that’s a pretty clear win-win. There is, however, a paradox facing those living legends looking to come out of retirement; while the groundbreaking work they did in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s reverberates through the present day, we’ve had many decades to process, absorb and extrapolate from the Olympian fire that they brought to the masses. While their classic works remain evergreen, their newer material is sometimes out of step with the present moment.
To Lydon’s credit, What the World Needs Now… never feels like it’s losing a war against its own imitators, perhaps because PiL’s influence and innovation never ran along just a single creative axis. The critics generally agree that the group hit their pinnacle with their sophomore set, Metal Box/Second Edition, an album that melded punk rock and a cavernous take on dub reggae to create a harrowing musical experience. But contemporary fans are just as likely to have encountered the band through later singles: the dance-punk pisstake “This Is Not a Love Song,” the Celtic arena rock masterpiece “Rise” or their retro-futurist synth pop jam “The Order of Death.” PiL covered a lot of ground in the first decade and a half that they were together, and World attempts to get its arms around all of it.
Opening tracks “Double Trouble” and “Know Now” provide a kind of bedrock for the rest of the album to build upon; they’re easily the most straightforward punk songs on the album—possibly of the band’s entire career. From there, the group flits between metallic, groove-oriented fodder like “I’m Not Satisfied” and “Spice of Choice” and moodier, more diffuse pieces like “Bettie Page” and “Big Blue Sky.” It’s an admirably diverse listening experience, but not any more enjoyable for that fact.
Lydon, once among the most electric frontmen in all of rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t able to animate this set. All the familiar vocal tics are still in place—those rolled R’s and sneered syllables—but the 20-odd past years have dulled much of the weaponized potential of that banshee wail. His lyrical subject matter tends to be too insular (“Double Trouble” is about argument Lydon got into with his wife over a broken toilet) or overly broad (the incoherent anti-capitalist screed “Corporate”). On top of all that (and this is an issue with a lot of reunion acts), the production feels blandly contemporary. Lacking both the rawness of their earliest work and the dense layering of sound that characterized their late ’80s and ’90s output, it leaves the album sounding antiseptic. Especially underserved are the two closing tracks “Corporate” and “Shoom;” the looser, more improvisational feel of the songs is never able to deliver on its shambolic promise.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lydon let his irascible exterior drop for just a moment to extol the virtues of his current band—Lu Edmonds on guitar, Bruce Smith (formerly of the Pop Group and many others) on drums and Scott Firth on bass—admitting, ” I don’t feel shy or ashamed or embarrassed about myself anymore.” On a personal level, I’m happy for Lydon. As one human to another, it’s pleasing to see that he’s arrived at a point in his career where the creative process can be fun, collaborative and fulfilling. But as a fan, I compare What the World Needs Now… to Never Mind the Bullocks… and those early PiL records, and I can’t help but wish someone would lock Lydon in a studio with three guys who are out for his blood.