Nearly three decades after John Lydon entered Malcolm McLaren’s sex shop on King’s Road and came out as punk’s luminary antihero Johnny Rotten, Lydon pulled off an equally stunning, and arguably more grotesque, metamorphosis: He became a British TV icon. For years, Lydon’s been a regular on the tube, popping up as reality show contestant, as grist for the late-night talk show mill, and most recently, as shill for Country Life English butter. What’s left of that old Lydon—the man who once terrorized Top of the Pops as the frontman of the Sex Pistols, and inspired a thousand post-punk bands with his cult outfit Public Image Ltd.—is now preserved, it would seem, in a haircut, a frozen sneer, and an immortalized back catalogue. So, with the release of This Is PiL, Public Image Ltd.’s first album in 20 years, a few questions bear asking: Which Lydon will show up? And what could he possibly have to say now?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Over the course of This Is PiL’s hour-plus running time, Lydon sings about project housing, drug addiction, the class system, the London riots (if only obliquely), and, like the self-promoting huckster he is, Public Image Ltd. itself. Joined by long-time PiL collaborators Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith (but conspicuously missing founders Keith Levene and Jah Wobble), the band churns through a fairly uneven set, which occasionally finds Lydon at his Seussian worst, as on the ridiculous “It Said That” (“Well, that is a rat/Rat-a-tat/Go gossip that”). At its best, the album showcases a wearier and more introspective Lydon, reflecting on the central obsession of his career, the state of Britain.
“I think England’s died,” Lydon sings on “Human,” one of the few album standouts. Decades ago, that line might have been cause for jubilation, but here Lydon sounds almost mournful, as his lyrics unspool into a string of reminiscences. “I miss…those English roses/Of salad and beer and summer here/And many mannered ways/Of cotton dresses skipping across the lawn/Of happy faces when football wasn’t a yawn.” It’s a remarkably earnest moment for an artist who’s long evaded personal introspection for overblown theatrical posturing. Even when his lyrics do become polemical, his anger is hitched onto his own working-class experience. “One Drop,” a song about Lydon’s adolescence in Finsbury Park, for instance, could easily stand in as an anthem for the riots that blazed across London last summer. “We are teenagers,” he sings, “the focused…out of the hopeless.”
If lyrically This Is PiL marks a step forward for Lydon, then musically the album seems caught in a mid-’90s production rut, the color and texture of the band’s rhythm section feeling leached out. The lone exception might be “Lollipop Opera,” a seven-minute burst of distorted drums and dubby basslines, with Lydon rapping through a megaphone like some lunatic ringleader. Still, this seems to get at the larger problem with This Is PiL. When musically things start to pick up, Lydon phones it in; and when Lydon is on the mark lyrically, the music sputters. Still, after a two-decade absence from the studio, it’s a relief to finally see a band, rather than television set pieces, behind Lydon again.