Public Image Ltd: This Is PiL

John Lydon stops spreading butter to record PiL’s first new studio album in 20 years.

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From the Sex Pistols to Country Life butter commercials, through a multitude of musical co-operations to the zig-zag progress of PiL – and even annoying live sharks on the Discovery Channel – the career course of John Lydon is difficult to plot. He has been criticised, vilified, and even turned audiences into angry mobs.

The logical expectation would be that he remain part of the marginalised avant-garde, much like Lydia Lunch. However, Lydon has such a formidable capacity for self-promotion – and maybe this is his true talent – that he has extended his ability to surprise and shock long past its sell-by date, investing each piece of his work with more than justified significance and maintaining a profile higher then he truly deserves.

This may be the only reason that I’m listening to This Is PiL, trying very hard to find some merit in what’s being heralded as the ensemble’s first studio recording in 20 years. Over those two decades, PiL have been all manner of things to all manner of people. First Issue was indisputably ground-breaking, Yoko-Ono-plays-dub, with Jah Wobble’s full-fathom bass set against Keith Levene’s razor-edge guitar. At the other extreme, the album Album had Lydon ranting and sneering over Steve Vai’s quasi-metal guitar and the drumming of Ginger Baker.

Lydon has always been full of surprises. So what, 20 years on, do PiL have to offer the 21st century? In a word: disappointment. There are no surprises, no innovation, not even a new set of emperor’s clothes to argue about. If this was a post-Hawkwind garage band with a singer who’d listened to too much Bob Calvert and Jim Morrison, I’d suggest they go away and rethink the project.

The single One Drop is pleasant Portobello Road blue beat, but the day I call John Lydon ‘pleasant’ is not a good one. Without exception, the rest of the material is modal and linear, with Lu Edmonds, Scott Firth and Bruce Smith providing repetitious instrumental figures over tight, simple tempos, while Lydon declaims what amounts to very mediocre poetry – with some really irritating rhyme patterns – in a manner that is merely pompous.

Worse still, the production uses a Cliff-And-The-Shadows lace-curtain retro reverb that tends to make everything sound nicer than it really is. The overall impression is that not a great deal of work went into the music on This Is PiL.

Maybe hard work and planning is boring, but don’t beat me up, John. I’m only saying it for your own good.