On My Turntable: This Is PiL

After a twenty year hiatus music’s own Richard III is back with This Is PiL, Public Image Ltd.’s first album since 1992’s That What Is Not.  If you’re looking for artistic growth look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for art with a dub beat this is your disc.

“We come from chaos, you cannot change us,” John Lydon bleats on “One Drop,” setting the tone for the album.  At age fifty-six Lydon is still the naughty little boy who picks your nose and eats it just to see your expression.  Title track and first cut “This Is PiL” opens with a belch, just in case we’ve forgotten what the Johnny Lydon character is all about.  For the next four minutes he chants variations on “this is PiL” and “you are entering a PiL zone” over a simple beat and Lu Edmunds’s atmospheric guitar.  The effect is similar to taking one’s hat off prior to entering a church — it’s the transition between the outside world and “the PiL zone.”

Once the listener crosses that threshold the first thing that he or she notices is that voice.  Few singers have created such a distinct vocal persona: Eddie Vedder, perhaps, but not his myriad imitators; maybe whatever headbanger brought the Cookie Monster voice to metal, but that’s generic now.  No, Lydon is in that rarefied air with Dylan of distinct vocal personae that are rarely imitated.  In fact, I can’t think of anyone who has ripped off Lydon’s post-Pistols schtick.

And it is a schtick, have no doubt.  John Lydon is every bit as much of a creation as Johnny Rotten — at times equally menacing, at others just as silly.  Lydon’s enunciation — or ee-nun-see-ayyyy-shonnnnn as he might say; his strange warble; the exaggerated rolling R’s that turn a word like “proper” into a full line; these hallmarks are as critical to PiL’s sound as Dylan’s braying is to his.

Equally important are the simple, obvious end rhymes.  Lydon’s lyrics have more in common with hip hop than poetry, and in fact commenting on his flow seems appropriate.  Runs like “interrogate into hate operate tomorrow terra-gate” (“Terra-Gate”) might be nonsensical but they flow beautifully, and are a pleasant reminder that Lydon was an early advocate for hip hop.

Lydon’s simplistic lyrics also remind one why PiL matters.  Almost thirty-five years after the release of their first album, 1978’s First Issue, Public Image’s music still sounds like something my buddies and I could make.  That’s a compliment, believe it or not.  At its core punk and post-punk were all about the do it yourself  “DIY” ethic — three chords and a 4/4 beat and you were ready for an audience.

Songs like “Human” maintain that vibe.  Drummer Bruce Smith rides the high hat like his foot is glued to the pedal and Scott Firth backs him up with a paint by numbers bass line.  Instead of three chords Lu Edmunds lays down some noodly riffs full of flange and chorus — just the right textures.  You can almost hear the practice room jam developing into an album track: Lydon listening to the groove his band is laying down, grabbing the mic and freestyling,  “Because I’m human I’ve just been thinking about getting it right.”

Groove.  That’s something that’s been missing from interesting music in the last few years.  No disrespect to Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, et. al., but “listen” and “dance” are not mutually exclusive options.  Interesting music can have a groove, which is one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about PiL.  In a more enlightened time a cut like “I Must Be Dreaming” would’ve been welcome on the dance floor, in the art school basement, and swinging around the brass pole.  This Is Pil’s beats will likely keep it in my regular rotation for quite some time.  The songs are simply fun to listen to.

One exception is “The Room I Am In,” which is heavy on art school weirdness, but Lydon’s spoken word performance does his lyrics no service, and the song’s tempo is like a speed bump.  When reviewers comment on the album’s pretentiousness this must be the cut to which they’re referring.  I don’t hear pretentious so much as a downer on an otherwise uptempo album.

Bud don’t confuse “uptempo” with “super happy family fun time.”  “Lollipop Opera” is the most infectious seven minutes of pop music horror I’ve heard in years.  Imagine Mika meets Stephen King’s Pennywise.  I have no idea what a lollipop opera is, but the song scares the shit out of me.  It’s the sonic equivalent of a Captain Spaulding scene from House of 1,000 Corpses.

Enough.  What you want to know is whether this album is worth your time and money.  The short answer is yes, particularly if you want to party like an art school kid circa 1986.  But regardless, in an era when music is safe, sane, and boring a new PiL album is more than welcome.

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