Sometimes it takes a 20-year layoff to remind you what you love. This is PiL revitalized.
Rock stars do not age well. Music that is associated with the vigor and potential of youth can turn sour; to watch Pete Townshend need to sit down while playing “My Generation” is to feel your own mortality approaching. To see a 70-something Mick Jagger still performing the movies of his youth is cringe-inducing. To hear Elvis Costello become a crooner of standards makes one long for the fire of “Radio, Radio.” To watch John Lydon ask, “Do I buy Country Life butter because it’s British?” one can’t help but cry for another fallen hero.
While Lydon had made a career out of commodifying outrage, his confrontational sneer always seemed genuine. From the Sex Pistols to PiL, he sought out an innovative sound to pair with his voice and lyrics. Amid a changing roster of producers and bandmates, Lydon was a constant, screeching and warbling his rage. But after That What is Not in 1992, PiL fell silent. What else was there to do but sell butter?
(That sound coming from the afterlife is the distinct tremor of Tom Snyder laughing.)
As if sensing his bona fides besmirched, Lydon let it be known that the earnings from the Country Life ad campaign went to reforming PiL. The band reunited in 2009 and released This Is PiL, its first studio album in 20 years, in 2012. Guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith returned with Lydon to install the sensibilities of middle-age into the ongoing experiment that is Public Image Ltd. And the result…?
Like death, nostalgia comes for us all. It sanitizes memory so that the things we loved in youth and young adulthood are remembered as greater than they were. PiL had its challenges (The Flowers of Romance, That What is Not), its genius (Metal Box, Album) and its good times (Happy?) but the only consistent aspect of its sound has always been Lydon. He is what we are talking about when we talk about all the flaws and glories of PiL. His evolution from punk to post-modern, pop culture statesman is at the root of any opinion about his stature as an artist, sellout or inexplicable celebrity.
This is PiL is an album made by that John Lydon. It sounds like a PiL record, but an idealized version of one. Like any reboot, it shows the influences of its predecessors while polishing away anything raw or feral. It is an album made by men in their 50s who are refining what they did in their 20s and 30s.
The title track begins with belching as Lydon spends three minutes riffing on the words “This is PiL” during the droning first track. Edmonds, Firth and Smith save this ponderous track from Lydon’s indulgence. The proclamation seems to be that PiL will always have its rebelliousness, but there has been an evolution of sound and emotion. “Human” is an almost wistful ode to the better days of a less polarized world where Lydon yearns for the England he once scorned. “I Must Be Dreaming” is a near meditation on the yearnings of low creatures. “Lollipop Opera” is exquisite musical madness while “Reggie Song” allows the band to show off its pop music craftsmanship. This is the band at its least experimental but most accessible. Maybe making an album to appeal to a wider audience was the experiment.
Like Lydon, This is PiL suffers from a bit of paunch – it could lose that extra 10 minutes it’s carrying – but it has one quality that always felt elusive throughout Lydon’s previous work: it sounds like he enjoyed making the record. As lead singer and front man he’s never sounded better. Being a rock star always seemed like a stepping stone to Lydon’s real goal, being famous. Sometimes it takes a 20-year layoff to remind you what you love. This is PiL revitalized.