After a nearly 20 year hiatus Public Image Limited (PiL) has just released its second album in three years. What The World Needs Now, on their own PiL Official label, is the successor to 2012's This Is PiL and is everything, and more, you'd expect from one of the most talented, versatile and unpredictable bands in the business.
Fronted by the indomitable John Lydon, the rest of PiL's membership is made up of fellow veterans of the music wars. Lu Edmonds, former guitarist for The Damned, plays guitar and a multitude of other stringed instruments. Bruce Smith has played drums with everyone from The Slits to Bjork and has been with PiL in various incarnations since 1986. Rounding out the band is Scott Firth on bass and keyboards whose career has seen him play with Steve Winwood, John Martyn, Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls.
While one might expect a certain world weary cynicism to be part of the band's collective conscience, you could never tell by listening to this release. Not only is this disc a refreshing collection of musical styles and genres, lyrically it ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even better is the sense of fun that seems to pervade the entire release in spite of the seriousness of some songs' lyrics.
You only need to look at the disc's cover with its stylized trickster figure (not only painted by Lydon's but wearing his shoes) to have a clearer idea of what's going on inside the sleeve. Tricksters traditionally hold up mirrors to society in order to show us how ridiculous we've become. These images aren't necessarily funny, but if we pay attention to them we can always learn something. Lydon has always been one of pop music's ultimate tricksters and on What The World Needs Now he and the rest of PiL have out done themselves.
However even tricksters have their serious side and PiL are no exception. The song "One" is a poignant delving into the personal nature of sadness. This is PiL and Lydon we're talking about, so don't expect cheap sentimentality, but a sharp and intelligent homage to the times in our life when we're down or sadness threatens to overwhelm.
Lydon still doesn't pull any punches lyrically when it comes to those he considers fitting targets for his anger. Just listen to the lyrics of the song "Corporate" and you'll see he's not lost any of the volatility he's famous for. "Not global villages, but one globe/Not itty, bitty little villages of pity and learning how to survive in the 21st century and looking at WWlll/Because all humans seem to hate humanity."
While "Corporate" attacks the mentality that has allowed corporations to dictate what the direction the world takes, "Bettie Page" is an attack on the hypocrisy of the public when it comes to sexual images of men as opposed to women. "Bettie Page/Front page with Bettie Page, remember when you were the rage?/But you were censored in the greatest pornographic country in the world/Well, welcome to America/Land of the free/The pure absurd well served/Led by Betty Boop.../They all were naked 'till Maplethorpe shamed the heart of the Christian core/so get your cover off/Strip it down to the sergeant's stripes/God bless America".
However, for a true taste of the absurd, the disc's closing song, "Shoom", is a classic. A stream of conscience diatribe about nothing and everything, which Lydon says he wrote as a kind of requiem to his father, it also answers the question implied in the disc's title: "What the world needs now is another fuck off"..."Play me, play bollocks/Pay me, you pay me bollocks/Contracts, well they are bollocks/Contacts are fucking bollocks/Success is bollocks/Botox you fucking bollocks/Sex box, fucking bollocks/Sucking lemons, fucking bollocks ...What the world needs now is another fuck off".
All of which is sung/chanted over a rather laid back dance beat save for the chorus of "What the world needs now" which comes out as a rather guttural scream. While the lyrics may prove a little challenging for some people, although I think anyone who'd be offended by them won't be listening to a PiL, taken all together they capture the irreverence towards societal norms which has epitomized Lydon's career.
Musically PiL are one of the most accomplished bands you're going to hear these days. They draw upon almost every style and genre of pop music and then make them their own. You'll everything from house to glam and art rock to punk - sometimes in the same song - on this disc. What makes it great, is the fact you're not even aware of what they're doing until you sit back and think about it later. Even within a song their segues from one style to another are so seamless it just seems like the song's natural progression.
Of course, overtop of it all rides the sound of Lydon. He's been a part of the collective unconscious of pop music since 1975, keeping us all from becoming too complacent. Whenever it seems like the world of music is becoming too corporate, too smug and too full of itself, along comes Lydon with his fistful of pins to poke holes in the balloon. He never specifically bites the hand that feeds him, but just by being his opinionated self he shows us how the medium's potential is being wasted.
What The World Needs Now is the perfect antidote for those grown sick of the pablum of the pop music machinery. Not only is it musically great, its lyrics will make you think. PiL is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, in fact they are sure to offend right thinking people everywhere. Just what good rock and roll is supposed to do.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: What The World Needs Now - Public Image Limited)
(Originally posted September 2015)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.