When Dick Clark died a few months ago, one of the most widely-circulated videos posted in his honor was a clip of Public Image Ltd.’s 1980 appearance on American Bandstand. The group performed “Poptones” and “Careering” in the most sneering, audience-friendly way possible and engaged in one of the most hilariously off-kilter interviews Clark was ever a part of on his own show. As a tribute to Clark’s unflappability, it’s an ideal document; however, it also speaks volumes about why Public Image Ltd. so captured the attention of the post-punk generation. After moving on from the Sex Pistols, John Lydon decided to revolutionize music again, by smushing the confrontational and risk-taking attributes of punk rock onto a musical template of dub-anchored future-funk. While early PiL was, indeed, breathtakingly abrasive, thanks to the bristling, wiry tones of Keith Leven’s guitar and Lydon’s vibrato warble, they were also incredibly human, due to the trance-like rhythms of Jah Wobble and Martin Atkins. Over time, those rhythms would be played by different performers and become progressively more commercial, resulting in albums that became progressively less interesting. A string of utterly forgettable releases in the early ‘90s made most fans glad when Lydon put the band on ice in 1993.
Nineteen years later, and it’s like PiL never went away … and that’s not a compliment. This is PiL tries occasionally to evoke the spare attack of the group’s early work (most notably and effectively on “Human”), but for the most part, the record sounds horrifically lazy and uninspired. It’s as if PiL has been a working concern over the past two decades and simply ran out of steam, instead of being the triumphant return of an iconic band. (It’s important to note that this “reunion” is merely Lydon, his Generic-era drummer and guitarist, and a new bassist. So, no Wobble, no Levene, no Atkins … just a continuation of that middling, uninspired sound of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.) Lydon’s voice is a complete disaster, with the years having turned his signature yelp into a scratchy, breathless whimper. Meanwhile, one hopes that lyrics like those for “Loillipop Opera” and “One Drop” were written by this once-incisive commentator as a bit of an ironic piss-take, because “we are the ageless/we are teenagers” can’t be anything but a joke. Musically, the focus is, as it should be, on a dub-touched rhythm section, but the arrangements here are dull, ordinary and unforgivably sluggish; a cut like “Deeper Water” may momentarily evoke the hypnotism of early PiL, but you’ll soon realize you’re not falling into a trance … you’re just bored because the song is going nowhere. With none of the tension or electricity of the music PiL is best-remembered for, This is PiL is a disappointing return for a band that—at least for some shocked Bandstand viewers—once seemed like it was going to completely change music forever.