PiL – ‘This is PiL’

The salty tang of post-punk is all over this album, but it’s the aftertaste of John Lydon that saves it

Reforming post-punk bands? It could be wrong, it could be right. Well, actually no, it’s shit. Magazine, Gang Of Four, they’re all at it these days – one time enemies of tradition, cashing the fuck in. The difference with John Lydon’s PiL comes down to lightly salted, and actually quite tasty, butter. The 56 year-old fought valiantly to raise the cash for ‘This is PiL’, dying the Country Life death so he could kick up a stink with the establishment.

And yes, this is PiL: the quintessential post-punk band who, with 1979’s seminal ‘Metal Box’, spirited listeners through a terror ride where arty experimentation was taken to the brink of neurosis by idealistic fervour. They were important, helmed by a 23-year-old ex-Sex Pistols visionary who used to be called Johnny Rotten and tirelessly berated the ’70s mods (Weller included) for their retrophilia, and the punks for their Chuck Berry conservatism. Understandably, even the faintest possibility that John Lydon is bowing to the nostalgia market is disconcerting.

Turns out we’re in safe hands – the drawback being that ‘safe’ is the operative word. ‘This Is PiL’ is a relatively edgeless makeover, albeit infused with the progressive spirit of ’79, and bolstered by what has always served Lydon well – his ear for new innovations, without which ‘This Is PiL’ would be a whitewash. Slotting in somewhere between golden era PiL (that of guitarists Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble) and the pomp of their new wave days, dub bass abounds below trebly guitar while Lydon sobs semi-tonally to the beat of mechanistic funk.

But while reliant on these familiar sounds, there’s an electric freshness on many tracks. The magisterial ‘Deeper Water’ rakes you with Bunnymenesque whists of cutting guitar, driving Lydon as he caterwauls his way to some nameless cataclysm: “I head for deeper water!” ‘One Drop’ is a slice of post-punk 2012: jagged funk hatched over Wobble-worthy bass and under Lydon’s rabble-rousing: “You cannot change us”. Then there’s ‘It Said That’, a dissonant tempest churning in eastern-tinged guitar. It’s not often a bunch of oldies meld Teutonic drums to surging synths and uncanny twitch-tronica, as on the ESG-do-techno ‘Out Of The Woods’. Talk about keeping the fire.

But for every ‘Out Of The Woods’ comes a stretch of blandnesss. ‘Lollipop Opera’ is silly, like musical raspberry blowing, while the overlong title track plays like a glorified middle-eight. ‘I Must Be Dreaming’ and ‘Human’ plump for a listless spin on Mondays scally funk. In true post-punk fashion, space and economy are paramount, but the straight-up rockers lack bite without Levene’s severe magic or the iced psychedelia of latter-day guitarist John McGeoch. ‘Terra-Gate’ strains for purse-lipped power, but is undone by a lack of discipline, while ‘Fool’ is spikier-than-usual MOR.

In the end, despite the vibrancy, you’re left feeling like the world probably isn’t desperate for a new PiL album. What it is desperate for is a new John Lydon. The record resonates with the back-echo of Johnny-boy’s epochal salad days, and the realisation that they don’t make them like they used to. An unbending humanist disguised as a pantomime villain, he’s monumental here. Iconoclasts – report immediately for open trials. The future is out there.
John Calvert