In 1984, Public Image Ltd released This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get as well as the single “This Is Not A Love Song.” They rank among the least compelling of PiL’s output, due largely to the gratuitous self-reference that had replaced the group’s eerie, oblique, post-punk creep. After a 20-year break in full-lengths, frontman John Lydon has fallen back into the old “This Is” construction with This Is PiL. He’s also fallen back into self-reference, only now it can be properly called by another name: self-caricature.
PiL’s last album, 1992’s That What Is Not, left the outfit hanging on a slick and inconsequential note, one that couldn’t be further from the dubby murk of the group’s pioneering work from the ’70s. This Is PiL circles back to that murk, then buries its head in it. “This Is PiL” opens the disc with an introductory dribble of bravado (and, literally, a belch) in which Lydon lukewarmly warns, “You are now entering / A PiL zone.” Once the most potent voice in popular music, Lydon now surfs on a wave of recycled menace. Musically, the band is solid yet unremarkable; the pulsing, lurching reggae of “One Drop” is immediately hypnotic, but the spell is dispersed by Lydon’s whining, Lee “Scratch” Perry-impersonating claim that “I am no vulture / This is my culture” and “We are the ageless / We are teenagers.” Um, no.
Lydon and crew deserve credit for trying to tap into the Jamaican roots of PiL’s signature thrum. That is, until the lopsided skank of “Reggae Song” kicks in. Where Lydon once synched with his group in a searing, sardonic lockstep, he now wanders over it like a tired caretaker. His voice still shoots sparks, but in all the wrong directions. “I am from London / Many of us come from London,” he spits in “Reggae Song,” toasting as best as he can manage. “No matter where you come from / You can still be a better person.” As a wishy-washy statement of pro-immigrant sentiment, it’s well and fine. As lyrics to a PiL song, it’s embarrassingly self-aware—somehow too vague and too on-the-nose at the same time. The same can be said of This Is PiL as a whole.