The song is the sound of the heart looking skyward, watching vapor trails dissolve
John Lydon and PiL have released one of the most affecting, effective and powerful songs of their long career.
“Hawaii,” the amazing new single from PiL, is an utterly lovely song about pain; a painful song about joy; and an incredibly simple song about life’s most desperately complicated dynamics. “Hawaii,” which exists somewhere between Claire de Lune, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” and the humming, hypnotic repetition of the Kaddish, is so raw emotionally that it will scratch and open scars as perhaps no punk rock song ever could. It is an authentic, golden-hued and heart-rending hymn to the passing of time, and the measures of sorrow we experience when we watch time takes its’ toll on the ones we love. “Hawaii” is also a psalm, plaintive and insistent, to a time when the world and all its furious, mysterious and brilliant treasures were yet to be revealed, and how this time can never be recovered, only remembered. “Hawaii” is the sound of the heart looking skyward, watching vapor trails dissolve.
“Hawaii” is an elegant, shimmering slip of a song that demands nothing except beauty; conjures evocation not just of place but the idea, shadow and footprint of place in the mind; describes the tear-weighted feeling when a slat of sun reveals the dust mote of memory. It is not meant to have an attitude, it is too simple, sad, deep and beautiful to have an attitude; it does not insist on image or backstory, it does not require we know its place in history.
Yet it is history, because we hear everything with our hearts, we hear everything with the mountains of loss around us, crowding nearer. “Hawaii” is not a frenzied inbreath, but an outbreath contemplating the cloudless silence of mortality, impermanence, that which has been lost and will never be regained, leaving only an afterimage, fading. It is a bittersweet, plum-sweet reflection, weighted with loss but lightened by awareness and resolution. Which is to say it’s as hummable as it is sad.
A gorgeous, warm, liquid song, “Hawaii” brings to mind the chiming, whispering sound of Danny Kirwan’s best work – again and again, I thought of his delicate, heart-pealing songs and playing while listening to “Hawaii” — while also recalling the wind-swept music of the Durutti Column, and even Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” Yet with its rumbling, far away tribal drums (the fantastic, spare and smart Bruce Smith has never sounded more like Martin Atkins) and the guitar (by the legendary Lu Edmonds) that hints at both Vini Reilly and John McGeoch, this amazing, profoundly emotional wet outbreath of a song is clearly rooted in the minimalism and lovely, fleshy science of Post Punk. At the same time, “Hawaii” is utterly romantic, in shape and intent; even if it about loss, it lopes and sighs like a lullaby. Even if it describes the encroachment of darkness, even as it outlines the shadow of a loved one, it reminds us of the night-light of joy, the memory that both revives and dooms us.
“Hawaii” is also that rarest of objects. A brand-new release from a legacy band that could stand completely on its’ own, without the weight or the ladder of history. If you had never heard of John Lydon or PiL, you will still fall for “Hawaii.” What a wonderful thing to say: In 2023, PiL have released one of the loveliest and most impactful songs of the year, and of their career. None of this should be too much of a surprise. After all, John Lydon’s sarcophagus of image is not, in fact, him. It’s a tool he’s used for decades to keep his name and face in the public eye and support his wife and his grandchildren. He has investigated deep wells of emotion, empathy and sentimentality since the very onset of PiL, 45 years ago; it was just disguised by the itchy sweater of noise and fury. For instance, “Annalisa” (from PiL’s frantic, game-changing debut) is a profoundly empathetic song, a howl of fury at child abuse (I’m convinced he’s actually crying near the end of the song); and “Memories” and “Death Disco” (from Metal Box/Second Edition, in this author’s opinion the Pet Sounds of Post Punk) both deal with the inability to find words to vent emotions, and describe the empty space left when the snow angel carved by love’s weight is left hollow. And that’s just the beginning of a long, long career where Lydon presented us work with a full and knowing heart, but we preferred to just draw anarchy signs on the sarcophagus wall. In addition, the grace and melody of “Hawaii” is not a new direction, either (though Lydon/PiL have never released anything as simply and gorgeously described, abbreviated, or punctuated as this).
About half of 2015’s vastly undervalued What the World Needs Now found Lydon testing amazing new ranges and timbres for his voice and entirely new spheres for his melodies, against a backdrop of angles and beauty, tire spikes, and minimalism (it’s one of the reasons What the World Needs Now is PiL’s best album in a generation). “Hawaii” makes a great deal more sense if we consider it the immediate follow-up to What The World Needs Now, and disregard the compilations, live albums, box sets, and documentary soundtracks that have been issued since then. Still, there’s no doubting “Hawaii” is a huge leap. I find the track roughly analogous to the lilting, hypnotic “Mother of Muses” on Dylan’s amazing Rough and Rowdy Ways; that is to say, here is an utter and indisputable legend, decades and decades into their career, producing a timelessly beautiful song that could stand entirely on its own merits completely apart from the artists’ history. You need not know a damn thing about Dylan to fall under the spell of “Mother of Muses,” or Lydon and PiL to be swept away by “Hawaii.”
“Hawaii” underlines the case for PiL Exceptionalism; i.e., appreciating Public Image Ltd. as one of the most interesting, important, and influential art rock bands of all time, regardless of the shadow cast by the Sex Pistols, Lydon’s sarcophagus of image, or his need to engage controversy to remain in the public eye and increase his earning potential. “Hawaii” is another peak in a career full of them, and so deeply personal and so spectacularly realized that it rings with truth and a mantra-like beauty. On “Hawaii,” John Lydon stands in front of us, stripped of everything you presume; stripped of the arrogance and the opinions and all the elements of the mask he wore for your pleasure, wore so you could have your totem of rebellion or contrariness, he stands stripped of everything but his vulnerability, his admission of mortality, and the love of beauty that drove even the most (presumed) poets mad. A literary dip:
“The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace.”
(Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly)
John Lydon is no longer interested in what you demand of him. He is interested in Attic grace. On “Hawaii” he sings the song of his own heart, a sigh, a tear, the song of our lives.
AUDIO: PiL “Hawaii”
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