Album review: PiL; This is PiL

John Lydon`s latest album with PiL was funded by a long tour - and those Clover ads. Picture: Reuters
John Lydon`s latest album with PiL was funded by a long tour - and those Clover ads. Picture: Reuters
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John Lydon sounds very relaxed on PiL’s first album in 20 years – as much as is possible while sounding like a deranged children’s entertainer

HOW lovely, in this Diamond Jubilee year, to welcome back John Lydon, for many the key dissenting voice of the Silver Jubilee in his role as composer of The Sex Pistols’ alternative national anthem, God Save The Queen. One would like to think that this is no accident.

Lydon has lived contentedly in Los Angeles with his wife Nora for some time but his thoughts on this ninth PiL album are very much with London. Isn’t there some big sporting event supposed to be happening there this summer? Again, this may not be a coincidence.

The only pity is that it falls to an old-age punk to pass comment, however impressionistically, at this time. No matter how dynamic and exotic the PiL sound, there is an unavoidable nostalgia attached to the return of this much admired group which you won’t get when, say, Plan B’s album comes racing out the traps like a streaker onto the pitch.

But this is not Lydon’s concern. The title suggests a year zero approach, as if Lydon is finally getting round to making introductions a mere 34 years after forming Public Image Ltd – and 20 years since delivering their last album.

There is also an implicit bullishness: welcome to my definitive line-up, which doesn’t involve original members Jah Wobble and Keith Levene though I am happy to preserve the key contributions they made to the PiL sound – bowel-quaking bass overlaid with keening guitar – to make your reacquaintance.

Lydon has always spun a revolving door when it comes to the group’s line-up. For this latest incarnation, he has practically picked up where he left off before the band’s lengthy hiatus, with guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, formerly of The Damned and The Pop Group respectively, both of whom joined PiL in the mid-1980s.

Bassist Scott Firth completes the happy family. And it is, according to Lydon, a happy family. For all the ill temper in this album’s hour of sometimes uneasy listening, there is also a casual cohesion to their experimentation. Several tracks hit the six-minute mark and keep going, strung-out odysseys which don’t outstay their welcome.

They can afford to please themselves – the album is entirely self-funded by the proceeds from PiL’s comeback touring of the past two years and those contentious butter adverts, turning what many had condemned as acts of brazen commerce into an immaculate work of subversion. Nicely played.

Lydon greets the listener with a guttural “lucky you”, the implication being we should be grateful for his return. The title track pans out like one of those intro skits on hip-hop albums, if they were delivered by some old ranter on the corner, accompanied by his pal on an Eastern European stringed instrument.

Tonally, Lydon sounds like a croaky middle-aged man, but stylistically, he cleaves to his familiar exaggerated enunciation, bilious chants and vibrato on the held notes at the end of phrases. All of this is present and correct on One Drop, a part bouncy, part glacial dub punk paean to his roots in multiracial Finsbury Park, which captures that youthful sense of ownership in your neighbourhood and makes for a considered, constructive riposte to last year’s riots.

Terra-Gate and Human are fluent, accessible and melodic post-punk rockers, the latter delivering some succinct words on the state of the nation (“trapped in a class system that has pushed you all aside, doomed to slide because I think England’s died”) and investing some droll humour into its requiem for a culture of “salad, beer and summer… when football was not a yawn”.

There are welcome echoes of early PiL in the intoxicating laidback lysergic funk of I Must Be Dreaming, the foreboding rumble of It Said That and the claustrophobic spoken word piece The Rooms I Am In. Lydon undertakes more of an internal journey on the ambiguous Deeper Water, accompanied by the dread jangle of guitar, and on the soulful blues of Fool, which is one of the most surprising tracks on the album, being a relatively straightforward entreaty to his lover not to abandon him, while Edmonds lets rip with controlled distortion.

Where Fool is unexpectedly straight, the eccentric, dubstep-infused Lollipop Opera is gleefully twisted and presumably Lydon’s idea of fun. Perhaps if this whole reunion thing doesn’t work out, he might consider an alternative career as the world’s most disturbing children’s entertainer.

As he intones in Reggie Song, adopting the clipped jabber and West Indian accent of a reggae toaster, “I am from Finsbury Park, and I am having a lark”. If This Is PiL really does signal the arrival of funtime Johnny, let’s have more of it.

PiL: This is PiL

PiL Official £11.99

Rating: ****