What the world needs now in 2017 is indeed a Johnny Rotten-styled provocateur to jab his or her twisted finger into the hypocrisy and absurdity of our modern era.
While the 2015 version of Public Image Ltd. is a far cry from the radical experimentalists of 1978, the band’s surly frontman has remained largely unchanged, having so entrenched himself in the public persona of Johnny Rotten/John Lydon as to have become something of a caricature of punk-fueled angst. Despite now being on the wrong side of 60, Lydon’s vitriolic rage—whether an act or not—remains white hot and, frankly, impressive given his unwavering dedication to the role of perennial miscreant he took up more than 40 years prior. Having regrouped PiL for the 21st century, Lydon moved back into more familiar territory after wandering off into the world of reality television and questionable celebrity status.
What the World Needs Now… is, if nothing else, a decent PiL album. It lacks the forward-thinking excitement and post-punk vitriol of the band’s early (and best) work, but it also forgoes the wanton pop pandering of the group’s late-‘80s output. Settling somewhere in between the two, this album functions as a platform for Lydon to espouse his many qualms and vent his frustrations with a fine, if somewhat pedestrian, instrumental backing. With the group having gone through so many iterations, the only unifying element is and has been Lydon’s rage-fueled ramblings and steadfast punk sneer. That the album opens with a much older-sounding Lydon snarling, “What, you fucking nagging again?/ About what, what what?/ The toilet’s fucking broken again?/ I repaired that, I told you” shows the former Sex Pistol to have lost none of his penchant for somewhat juvenile provocation.
From there, What the World Needs Now… offers more of the same from Lydon as he rants and raves through a litany of grievances with his now well-established and borderline formulaic sneer, trilled consonants and all. Because of this, nothing on the album sounds all that new or fresh, but the mere fact he’s still at it after all these years is an accomplishment in and of itself. Given the fleeting nature of punk’s UK heyday and Lydon’s comparatively brief tenure as Johnny Rotten, his continued relevance in the 21st century shows him to be an artist of far more substance than originally suspected. Sure, it’s become something of a one-note performance over time, but it’s a belligerently committed performance of unwavering uniformity.
And while there is nothing here that seeks to reinvent either the PiL sound or format the way Lydon did in the late-‘70s and mid-‘80s, there is enough rock ‘n’ roll posturing and competency to make up for the lack of envelope-pushing originality. Opening track “Double Trouble” finds Lydon slipping easily back into the role of perennial punk nuisance, while tracks like “Bettie Page” and “The One” go for something slightly more anthemic while still looking for something to be angry about—a pornography-obsessed culture in the former and interpersonal relationships in the latter.
Only “Spice of Choice” carries with it a whiff of the past as Lydon spits and shouts his way through the track’s nearly six-minute runtime, virtually chewing his way through the chorus lyric, “You get to choose your life/ You get the spice of choice/ You get to lose your life.” Here too he relies on his penchant for juvenile wordplay with lines like, “Confess, self-obsession/ You’re canned as a Spam” and “Master plan!/ Masturbation!.” By tuning out such nonsense, however, the listener is left with a muscular rock backing that prominently features guitarist Lu Edmonds and bassist Scott Firth. Indeed, it’s Firth’s nimble rhythmic interplay with drummer Bruce Smith that helps keep much of the album from falling into some form of demented PiL pastiche.
With its suggestive title (we all know he’s scoffing at the conceit of “love” as envisioned by the hippie generation he helped destroy), What the World Needs Now… reads as the setup to any number of complaints against modernity, our technology-obsessed world or stultifying political discourse. But the implication becomes clear as soon as Lydon enters the mix: what the world needs now is more vitriolic ranting and railing from John Lydon—this coming on good authority from none other than the man himself. By no means an outright failure nor an essential entry into the group’s somewhat implausibly long career, What the World Needs Now… is a fine, if creatively tempered, returned to form after years spent wandering the pop cultural wilderness gobbing on everything in sight that provoked his ire. Two years removed, what the world needs now in 2017 is indeed a Johnny Rotten-styled provocateur to jab his or her twisted finger into the hypocrisy and absurdity of our modern era.