Sorting through the rubble allows us to find roughly 15-20 minutes of usable material across a record that clocks in just underneath the 50-minute mark.
That What Is Not isn’t an Aerosmith or Pearl Jam record, and yet it has many similarities to both Pump and Ten. The drums are intended to sound big, but aren’t overwhelmingly so. The guitars threaten to go full-on metal yet retain a certain politeness in the mix, an amateur film composer’s idea of heavy metal. What it lacks that those other records—love them or hate them—have is solid writing. It’s hard to imagine John Lydon cozying up with Desmond Child, but years later, one wishes that maybe he would have.
The overriding problem isn’t so much that the innovator had become an imitator, but rather that these just aren’t memorable songs. On the first count, listening to “Luck’s Up,” you have to wonder if Mr. Rotten had been hanging around Nikki Sixx’s pad, figuring out how to write big, Neanderthal-quality choruses and Dokken-style guitar riffs. Remember, just a few years earlier he’d delivered a record on which Steve Vai (of all people) basically sounded nothing like our impression of Steve Vai. Yet, here he was with a bunch of guys who seemed to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and then become so subtle that they’re rendered more generic than Album’s art work.
By the time the third track, the abysmal wash of noise called “Cruel,” rolls in, we’re wholly uninterested and wondering how Lydon, a man who uses anger as an energy, could sound so positively defeated and bereft of ideas. He wouldn’t be the first artist in history to find himself in that predicament, a soul who’d done some impossibly brilliant work only to wash ashore without a compass. Somehow, this stumble is more difficult to fathom given the length of the fall.
Some of that might account for why Lydon mothballed Public Image Ltd. for 20 years after this record, why he went on the same nostalgia trip as his peers with his former mates in the Sex Pistols. It’s sad, not because he did exactly what all his peers were doing at the time, but because we’d come to expect someone with his musical I.Q. would find a way to navigate around the pitfalls. Unfortunately, he didn’t even stick it out and make a triumphant follow-up to this effort.
There are some aspects of the album to recommend: The late John McGeoch gives us some stellar guitar work throughout. The balance of acoustic and electric during the opening call to arms, “Acid Drops,” anchors an otherwise chaotic, sloppily arranged piece. McGeoch lends some heft to the aimless, wandering stab at something approaching commerciality known as “God.” Both of those pieces remind us that a band once known for making challenging music that defied convention had now become difficult to listen to because the music simply wasn’t very good.
Often, the songs sound like little more than rehearsal tapes, unrefined ideas notable for nothing more than their lackluster shapes and the sound of Lydon waving the flag of surrender. He gives us a flash of the old Rotten during “Emperor,” where he snarls about some political atrocity or other, atop Allan Dias’s expert bass work and the ferocious drums by Curt Bisquera. (McGeoch gets in a blistering guitar solo that blows the hinges off most of the other records in your collection too.)
Sorting through the rubble allows us to find roughly 15-20 minutes of usable material across a record that clocks in just underneath the 50-minute mark. Could there have been something better assembled out of all that? Maybe. There are flawed recordings out there that could’ve been massaged into something better. This isn’t one of those records, though. It’s legitimately bad, legitimately ill-conceived. This is not the band you once loved, the band that seemed capable of reinventing music and carrying us far out of our comfort zones.
Lydon wisely abandoned ship soon after, the smartest thing he could have done. His recent output with the reunited PiL hasn’t necessarily recaptured the old spark, but there have been consistent moments and some glints of past glories, few of which were evident in 1992.