It’s possible that there’s someone out there who’s been anxiously awaiting a new PiL album for the past 20 years. Maybe they thought that John Lydon and company had another Metal Box in them, or were waiting on another blistering, sarcastic jam like “This is Not a Love Song.” (It’s safe to assume that this hypothetical person did not hear PiL’s most “recent” studio album, 1992’s That What is Not, more famous for the is-it-or-isn’t-it album cover than the music within it, and also missed Lydon’s commercials for Country Life butter.)
If such a person exists they have my utmost sympathy. This is PiL ranks alongside Lydon’s 1997 solo record Psycho’s Path in terms of its sheer lack of necessity, which may be why it’s such a pleasant surprise.
The standout track “Deeper Water” features Lydon yelling his words over a thumping dub/disco beat. If our hypothetical fan hadn’t heard the former Johnny Rotten sing in a while, he’d be amazed by the kinks in his sharpest weapon. The one-note talk/scream is still there but showing its age. Oddly enough it works – it’s encouraging to hear an aging Lydon singing about swimming to deeper water to stay afloat. For a man as pompous and cocksure as he often appears in public, he acknowledges his own flaws on “Human” as a thumping dub beat rages behind him. “Terra-Gate” sounds the most like a song that could be on PiL’s early catalog, even as it veers from dub into straight out rock-and-roll, with a driving chorus and tricky guitar effects.
Lydon has always known how to assemble a band to achieve the sound he hears in his head. Bringing in bassist Jah Wobble and Keith Levine in the early days was inspired, and utilizing former Siouxie and the Banshees guitarist John McGeoch in the mid-80’s helped him achieve a more accessible sound. This lineup is impressive as well, and provides rock-solid backing to Lydon’s odd singing style, especially on pure dub songs like “Lollipop Opera.”
In fact, when This is PiL fails, it’s because Lydon can’t seem to get out of his band’s way. A good example is the album’s opener, “This is PiL.” In case you missed the title of the song or the album, Lydon screams it approximately 30 times. And that’s about it. The name of the band having thus been established, Lydon starts the second track, “One Drop,” by introducing himself, yelling “I am John and I was born in London!” and the song goes nowhere from there. “It Said That” just meanders with Lydon variously growling “what it said” and “what did it say” and attempting to sound angry when he finishes the song by barking “you can go shit in that sick if you listen to that.” His odd beat poetry at the beginning of “The Room I Am In” is distracting to the point of embarrassment (which perhaps Lydon realizes as at one point he chuckles to himself).
Overall, however, This is PiL is a satisfying if not entirely necessary return, and a sound use of Lydon’s earnings as a butter salesman. Let’s hope he doesn’t need to resort to licensing “Bad Baby” to E-Trade -or wait 20 years - to put out the next one.