One of the things that makes rock ’n’ roll great as an artform is its power to impact, to give a jolt of energy, outrage, or danger to the culture. These impacts have come in various ways, but they have become increasingly difficult to pull off.
Johnny Lydon managed one the greatest jolts as Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols in the 1970s. The Pistols made rock dangerous and outrageous again, but they also opened the floodgates to thousands of untrained (but not necessarily untalented) teenagers who formed their own bands and ignited the punk invasion. The list of musicians who have claimed inspiration from the Sex Pistols is staggering, rivaling even those of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
But as the nihilism that the Sex Pistols also inspired overwhelmed the band, it quickly became apparent to Lydon that outrageousness was a limited well for inspiration. He quit and, in 1978, formed Public Image Ltd. His second band didn’t have as much piss and vinegar as the Pistols, but PiL showcased more than mere rage. The group’s somber, moody 1979 second effort Metal Box—three 45s released in a film canister and later repackaged as a double album called Second Edition—remains one of the greatest rock projects ever recorded.
PiL has recorded sporadically since then, never topping those early recordings, but they did score a couple of minor hits with “Public Image” in 1978 and “Rise” in 1986. This Is PiL marks the group’s first effort in 20 years, and the results are mostly satisfying. Lydon was perhaps the greatest angry young man ever, twisting with cynicism and contempt, raging against the machine. But at 56, he’s long past his angry-young-man years, and repositions his shtick effectively as a babbling old man.
Ironically, Lydon financed the project with proceeds from a butter commercial. The latest effort brings early members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds (better known for his work with the Mekons) along with Scott Firth. (Original bassist Jah Wobble, sadly, did not participate.)
Lydon’s message this time around isn’t all that different than it was 36 years ago, but he comes at it from a different angle. In 1976, he shrieked against the power structure, mocking England’s institutions. This time around, he laments, in the song “Human,” “I think England’s died.” There is a sort of mea culpa here, where Lydon confesses: “None of us are the enemy/And they are same as you and me.” Still, he counsels listeners not to follow leaders. “Listen to me: they’re not good enough for you/It’s like looking across the great divide/Trapped in a class system that’s pushed you all aside.”
Oddly, his nostalgia is for lost youth as much as it is for whatever England once stood for. He misses roses, the time when “all the days were long” and “football was not a yawn.” He admits all of this is simply because he’s “human,” and has just been “thinking about getting it right.”
Lydon may be incapable of singing anything without contempt in his voice, whether it’s directed outward or inward. But at times he effectively uses that contempt to reflect sorrow, and much of the album is mournful. “The Room I Am In” is a spoken-word lament to Lydon’s personal hell. He knows the room is his own making and that there is no escape; it remains there even in heaven.
There’s not a lot of joy in Lydon’s world, but there is some danceable babble, evident on the stellar “Lollipop Opera,” which showcases Edmonds’ great drumming.
If there’s any hope to be found in Lydon’s oeuvre—the guiding principle that he has weaved throughout his career—it’s that the only salvation lies in creation. The game is rigged, but we can claim power in the creation of art and by living. The album closes on an upbeat note with “Out of the Woods.” On it Lydon says that all of this anger and bile are completely natural and primal: “I come from the woods/As I should/’Cause I could.”
Lydon would live nowhere else but in this primordial pool of emotional rage. He knows who he is and isn’t ashamed. He ends the album with the chant, “We are good.” And so is This Is PiL.