Public Image Ltd.
What The World Needs Now...
, September 10th, 2015 14:12
January 1978, and the garb of Johnny Rotten no longer fits the Sex Pistols frontman. His dilated stare, previously a mere accompaniment to the latest McClaren/Westwood 'Sex' boutique fashion statement, has a degree of newly found autonomy. The iconic goggle is no longer found to be vacant, with Rotten harbouring a plot to reform his public image, that is, to his own liking. How best to do such a thing? Dismiss the old Sex Pistols, and bring in an all-new concept.
And this is what he does. The new band looks almost like a template of the former; one that worked initially to 'reveal' the Sex Pistols, and his figure-heading of punk, as media fabrication. The erasure begins with a swapping of his 'Rotten' moniker for the factory-default; a plain, Little British 'John Lydon'. And just in case Lydon's intentions were not clear to his audience, the directly cynical name of his new act would suffice. Rejecting pop music's then-blinkered tribalism, his new band Public Image Ltd. let punk's natural enemies in through the floodgates; dub, synthesisers and a higher fidelity. Eventually abbreviated to PiL, the stark new art-direction would reach its peak in the master-reel shaped container of 'Metal Box'.
Lydon opened up the possibility of a post-punk era through a newly found ability to present punk as media construction, rather than a construction made by 'The Artist'. By doing this, he now gets the say on what is and isn't genuine. Partly out of boredom, partly out of self-preservation; Howard Devoto made a similar impression on the public's conception of his music career by leaving the Buzzcocks to form Magazine. His other post-punk contemporary Mark E. Smith also domineers his band The Fall, dismissing any band member who is deemed even slightly out of orbit from Smith's current vision. Such moves from these artists are rooted in individualism; confidence, paranoia over relevance and presumptuousness must all be had in the artist to think of themselves as the pivot for their band's creative achievements.
It is no longer so easy for one to be a contrarian about music; there are fewer clear lines to be cut in terms of listener identity. That is not to say that there is no room for contrarianism in music anymore, and if his back catalogue is anything to go on, Lydon's music is consistently unswayed by what is and what isn't popular. I, as I suspect many first listeners will be, was curious to find out how much the album would display genres and production styles contemporary to the last few years. And of course, Lydon's lyrics. Pretty hyperbolically I imagined Lydon's yowl in sonic high-definition, accented by a backdrop of post-dubstep beats. Let's face it, such an attempt would sound like run-jumping for the bandwagon and getting mangled in its spokes. Not that there's anything wrong with older musicians trying out contemporary musical avenues; it's just not very Lydon to lunge for the obvious. You can relieve yourself of this horrible image, as I can tell you safety now that this is not Lydon's syncopated monstrosity. With relative ease, What The World Needs Now... can be placed aside the likes of the 80s influenced 2012 release This Is PiL.
The second half of the album is the most interesting musically; it displays a set of songs built around cluttered instruments, rhythms and animalistic noises, but cluttered only to the conditioned ears of the modern listener. 'Big Blue Sky' and 'Whole Life Time' are revisitations of the 80s grooving and repetitive Eno's 'Another Green World' and his collaboration with Byrne 'My Life In The Bush of Ghosts'. It doesn't quite have the same effect as these albums, but by doing this, the album avoids being considered a nod to the grunge and punk revivalists. That is, the likes of younger bands Parquet Courts, Girlpool or Joanna Gruesome.
So how is this unlike any other PiL album then? The difference can be found in the lyrics. It's notable how much like The Psychedelic Furs' frontman Lydon has become on this album; a new-wave Englishman in America, with a bone to pick with President Gas. Lydon's political message is still just as confusingly opaque however (see his infamous foray into butter advertising to fund This Is PiL).
You can tell how sincere Lydon is being by the strength of his delivery. 'Big Blue Sky' is soulful Nick Cave, with every line tailing off in fervered warble. Lyrically, 'Corporate' captures that moment when you're in some beige and heritage-purple clothing chain, seeing now on the label that your chosen product was most likely sweatshop made. Eventually, you conclude, from the product in your hands to the soulless eyes of customer service, that you are most likely in the nicest room in a world-sized personality-abattoir. Or something. Despite its bluntness, the chorus of "MURDERER!" is oddly hooky (It lingers in my mind for a few unsettling hours). Intense and brooding poetic evocations aside, the album still holds court to the sweary PiL that we expect. Like tweets from Twitter's Get In The Sea rapped over a Factory Floor creation, 'Shoom' addresses the things that are 'bollocks' according to Lydon and, lo and behold, that turns out to be 'everything'. This is the kind of Sex Pistols-esque anger that tabloids would love to tempt its readers with (but we needn't worry, as Poseidon is off blasting every physical copy of a tabloid over a large ocean vent).
Musically, What The World Needs Now… is unlikely to surprise long-term fans of Public Image Ltd, but Lydon continues to do what he likes, with his only contemporaries presently being the equally outspoken Sleaford Mods. The musical decisions made on this album could be taken as political in themselves; the adherence to an unfashionable, uncommercial sound; the lack of desire to make the album more accessible to a younger audience by adopting modern production styles (for the most part). That is not to say that the music is only a tool to get political views across and it wouldn't do that to any great success; lyrically it is too impressionistic. As seemingly patchwork as the Sex Pistols' ransom-note logo, Lydon's lyrics are like soundbites brought together to form something that would seem disconnected, contradictory at times if it wasn't for the fact that they were on an album and not on a political manifesto. Instead of making any one clear political gesture What The World Needs Now... is a PiL project, in that Lydon's always-fresh non-conformism is the reason for its existence.