In an era where numerous veteran pop bands are reuniting and managing to release one album before re-imploding, it’s bands like Crowded House and Public Image Ltd. that are, so far, proving to be the exception by maintaining an active career beyond just an album and a tour. PiL, in particular, makes for a strange case. Fresh off the heels of the Sex Pistols brief, high octane run, Johnny Rotten became John Lydon and immediately took to a different form of punk, which we now think of as the post-punk crossed with the goth movement of the early ’80s.
Lydon’s volatile personality, his unorthodox vocal delivery (which didn’t always rely on things like melody), and the ever-revolving door of band members don’t exactly scream the word “longevity” when you put them all of these components together. But after a 20 year yawn, featuring John Lydon’s one-and-so-far-only solo album Psycho’s Path, Lydon was able to make the whole PiL thing work again thanks to the surprising sturdy reunion album This Is PiL. This was an album that tried it all — the easy-to-grasp pop of “One Drop”, the group improvisation of “Deeper Waters”, the druggy haze of “I Must Be Dreaming”, the throwback to “Religion” in “The Room I Am In”, the lengthy experimentation in “Out of the Woods” and the general snottiness of the title track. On that album, Public Image Ltd. had much to prove and they pulled it off with considerable style.
With What the World Needs Now…, the second album from the rejuvenated PiL, the band must have much less to prove this time around because that’s how things sound right about now. There’s something reassuring and refreshing about hearing a band bashing out an album with very little at stake, even if it doesn’t produce their greatest work.
What the World Needs Now… still has punch and variety. It has infectious tunes, roaring guitar work from Lu Edmonds, and a barely-aged vocal delivery form Lydon himself. The album’s first song and first single “Double Trouble” has Lydon cramming the words “Don’t fly me to the moon” together so tightly that you can just picture his entire body tensing. The PiL of 2015, like the PiL of years past, can never be confused for any other band. In other words, all of the key parts are in their right places. Yet What the World Needs Now… doesn’t seem to reach the heights that this band’s DNA would normally guarantee. But there is virtue in not trying to swing for the fences each and every time. A song like “The One” allows the band to explore a rather safe shuffle thereby putting Edmonds’s stamp on the track courtesy of a lovely ascending guitar line. The following track, “Big Blue Sky”, must have been set aside for the purposes of stumbling upon a happy accident. The eight-minute song’s payoff comes in the form of thick vocal harmonies on the word “sky”.
But Mr. Rotten is never far from Mr. Lydon. “Don’t need to know you!”, “What you fucking nagging again? / About what, what, what?”, “Fuck sex / It’s bullocks. All sex is bullocks.” That last little nugget come from closer “Shoom”, a song I like to think that Lydon wrote after he saw The Simpson‘s portrayal of Bart Simpson as Johnny Rotten (a song those Pistols sang went “Education’s bullocks! Bullocks! America is bullocks! Bullocks!”). Similarly, “Shoom” is Lydon hissing out a list of things that he thinks is bullocks, including humans and success, of course. In between these “verses” is a chorus where Lydon uses all the energy his voice can conjure to loudly proclaim that “What the world needs now is another fuck off!” So in case you were wondering what the ellipses in the album’s title implied, there you go.
The steady touring since 2009 has kept the rest of the current PiL lineup sounding nimble. Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith have recorded with Lydon before on Happy? and 9, two Public Image Ltd. albums from the ’80s. Bassist Scott Firth may be the “newcomer” here, but he easily slides into the sound without any ceremony. Together, they continue to provide an unshakable foundation on which John Lydon can flail about with any impulse that crosses his mind. Whether he hits the mark or goes slightly astray, the very name Public Image Ltd. is present once more to keep the whole thing anchored.