This Is PiL
, May 15th, 2012 10:40
This is PIL... indeed. This is belligerent from the outset, from the title even; a wrestling back of the spotlight and a testy swipe at any opposing PiLs that might be regrouping and performing small club gigs in the north of England. Of course, I refer to the recent Wobble / Levene outings that saw the duo reunited for dubbed up run-throughs of Metal Box, concluding with steely renditions of 'Public Image'. At one such affair – at Manchester's Ruby lounge – a singular irony began to dawn on me. For those die-hard PiL fans of post punk vintage, it was seen as a return to the ferocious adventuring of 1979. Such fans are a precious gang indeed, often agreeing with Jah Wobble's rather unkind comment to the effect that Lydon "...hasn't produced credible music since the 1986 outing, Album."
But the irony now seems glaringly obvious. In cold terms, it is Wobble and Levene who appear to be treading those safe waters of old. By contrast, and thrillingly so, This Is PiL sees a shape-shifting band that has now evolved into a mischievous and settled four-piece. A band that includes the stalwart Lu Edmonds – blisteringly experimental here – once locked in the rockist embrace of The Damned, Bruce Smith from The Pop Group and The Slits and Scott Firth, who has spent time adding bass to The Spice Girls. This is now the core...one year deep into intensive rehearsal. It may not be the PiL of your dreams, but it is, most defiantly, PiL. Deal with it.
Mercifully, and perhaps against the odds, this is a 63 minute chunk of music that wavers marvellously from the irresistible, the effortlessly accessible to the downright weird. Surely, that is what one might wish for? The title track sets the tone. A wild howl topping a dub bass that dips and growls like the 'geezer' himself. There is no further message here. Lydon at 56 still manages to breathe inspiring fire into the most simplistic of chants. That could be Johnny at his ferocious best. However, on later tracks he is to be replaced by a more amiable if gloriously cheeky beast whose appears to be glancing back to days of shenanigans in Finsbury Park. For this is, without doubt, an album haunted by the shadows of London, be it in pre-Olympian countdown or back in the litter-strewn days of 70s monochrome.
It's a lyrical vision that can be seen as a reflection of Damon Albarn's The Good the Bad and the Queen; an evocative place, alive with the emotion of history. Perhaps Mr Lydon had been feeling just a mite home-sick as he fried beneath the relentless sun and glitz of Venice Beach?
That said, track three, 'Deeper Water' is nothing of the sort. Inspired by a boating trip he undertook with wife Nora off the Californian coast, the song, powered by a mighty Lu riff, the song sees Lydon strangely using the ocean as a metaphor for personal problems – a deep and beautiful place teaming with obvious dangers. It could have been the result of too much sun and beer and lyrical ambition. However pretentious that might sound, it's married to some of the most infectious music in PiL's rich and awkward history.
That aside, it's very much a London record. 'I Must Be Dreaming' is awash with, perhaps, a rather unlikely and wistful nostalgia, Gifted a psychedelic folksy backdrop, Lydon laments, "I miss the roses, cotton dresses skipping across the lawn, happy days when football was not a yawn..."
While this might seem a long way from 'Bodies', it is also rooted in a Finsbury Park now misted by the passing of time. Similar, perhaps, is Lydon's homage to a local character in the pop-tone heavy 'Reggie's Song', where the apparently old rascal is described as "... a ladies man." Not for the first time on this album, the hankering seems to be for the faded glamour of the kind of barefoot London that gave rise to The Sex Pistols (Dickensian oiks to a lad) and the Wobble/Levene axis of PiL, where their second-hand suited vision of anti-glam just couldn't put a foot wrong. This is the link which makes This Is PiL such an unexpected triumph. Again, the irony is screaming, and the link with Metal Box seems more powerful than any reflections of the age of Album and 'Rise'.
Perhaps the reason for this lies in the simple camaraderie of a band that has dug themselves fully into a groove. That alone would be enough to provide a rebirth here: new momentum, perhaps, that should carry Lydon fully into a credible return, regardless of diversions into butter peddling.
There is more, too. Lydon's ever-inspiring love of de-dub postulates continually throughout the album – it's such a perfect return, given the rather shallow rock diversions that PiL have traversed along the way. 'This Is PIL', 'One Drop' and 'Reggie Song' are enough to complete this most welcome of ghosts.
Most importantly, this is an album that finally... finally... might just release Lydon from the grip of those Metal Box nostalgics. A monkey released from the hunched shoulder. You can reach out and touch that lovely irony. Let go of the albatross or, John Lydon succinctly puts it, "Lucky You".