End of World is the sound of First Issue all grown up
I blame the Stones.
Sometime in the late-ish 1980s (and certainly by the 1990s), we began to take it for the granted that the aging rock leviathans of our youth were as a matter of course – nay, almost as a right – going to release really shitty albums.
The Rolling Stones were the Marie Curie (or Philo Farnsworth, if you will) of this movement, but by no means its’ exclusive purveyor. There were many, many reasons that our childhood heroes, these icons of bloviated Two-for-Tuesdays/“It’s Rocktober, baybee!” Muni-ism, made pandering, second- and third-rate records as they aged. Although these causes and conditions are deep and fascinating, this is not the time to detail them.
Suffice to say that I’d rather listen to 1990s re-recordings of Paul Revere & the Raiders’ greatest hits than contemporary work by the Who, Stones, Deep Purple or the once-mightier-than-all Blue Öyster Cult, et. al (and this before we even touch on the subject of Cheap Trick’s “The Flame”). [Note to self: Petition to get Bloviated Muni-ism into the next edition of the DSM.]
Of course, there were exceptions. But for every David Bowie or Bob Dylan, Wire or Neil Young, there seemed to be yet another almost apoplectically unnecessary Who live record recorded with some orchestra, or some once formidable legacy act doing the obligatory standards, covers, or acoustic album. “We are all Eric Clapton,” they sadly murmured. Standing over the Blackjack table of life, these artists looked down upon their creative legacy and the snuffed embers of their once Odin-like powers and said to the dealer, “Do you offer surrender?”
Artist: Public Image Ltd.
Album: End of World
Label: PiL Official
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Which is all to say: Based on the ignoble and desultory precedent set by many of our aging rock stars, it would make sense if you were to somehow overlook the fact that PiL, 45 years after their debut, have released a fucking fantastic new album.
John Lydon is one of our great artist rock stars. I say that without reservation.
If he had done nothing but sing on Never Mind the Bollocks, that would have been enough; if he had done nothing but be part of the musically revolutionary ensemble that created First Issue, Metal Box/Second Edition, and Flowers of Romance – honestly and verifiably, three of the most shocking, pleasing, and progressive albums ever released by a “mainstream” (i.e., major label and well-exposed) act in pop/rock history – that would be enough.
The bastard child of Chas ‘n’ Dave and the Third Ear Band, Max Wall and Neu!, John Lydon is equal parts Hawkwind and Gong and the drunk at the pub who can go on for hours about Coronation Street.
And he owes us nothing.
That Lydon has opted not only to continue to make extremely high end, tight and emotional alternative rock with PiL, but also to impressively expand his vocal and emotional vocabulary, is truly amazing. End of World, PiL’s eleventh studio album (and first in 8 years), is so good it’s almost, well, old-fashioned (yet it’s never nostalgic). This is fresh, fiery, inventive work from a band operating at the top of their game, and one of the most distinctive vocalists in pop history.
You may think you don’t need another PiL album in your life, but you’re likely wrong (I mean, I can’t anticipate what your specific needs are, though I hope, for your sake, that they include a visit to Carvel and some time spent with the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits). End of World (the omission of the “the” is not a typo) is a stately, strutting, confident, consistent and engaging record that re-affirms that the current line-up of PiL is one of their best, and certainly the most artistically solid and secure. John Lydon, Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and Scott Firth aren’t just the longest serving line-up of PiL; PiL have also never, ever sounded so much like an actual band, and one with a powerful and powerfully-realized mutual agenda: to roar, throb, slap, condense, chill with blue electricity, throb with old-school downtown punkfunk, and use silence as a very fucking solid platform for John Lydon’s best vocal work ever (yes, ever). On every track here, Lydon really seems to be exploring, exploding, and re-inventing his voice, taking no line, no lyric, no character, to persona for granted. I can’t underline this enough: End of World is so good, so fresh, that it could win over fans who had never liked (or even heard of) PiL before. Can you imagine that? End of World is that good. If you haven’t dipped into a PiL album in years/decades, try this one (though, having said that, PiL are coming off of two very good records: 2015’s What the World Needs Now and 2012’s This is PiL).
End of World is a serious yet joyous, strange, committed, consistent rock album with all the right touches of weirdness, passion, heart and anger. This also needs to be underlined: End of World is also the best late-Punk/Early Post Punk album I’ve heard in ages by any band, young, old, or in between (with the possible exception of Mexico’s Descartes a Kant, but that’s another story, and the last thing I am going to do now is drag you down another rabbit hole, especially after all that Stone stuff). End of World seems to capture that crack in the calendar right when labels like Factory, Rough Trade and 99 Records were finding a way to mix brittle downtown funk with punk’s churn and minimalism (big kick, big bass, and big yet contained guitars not afraid to disappear when necessary). Honestly, End of World is one of those albums that gets better with each listen, and the strength and consistency of the piece, and the majesty, invention, and emotion of each track, also heightens with each (theoretical) spin.
End of World seems to be the (very) satisfying, thrilling yet logical culmination of the path PiL have been on since 2012, when Lydon reactivated the PiL name after a twenty-year hiatus. On This is PiL (2012) and What The World Needs Now (2015), PiL reclaimed their artistic bonafides, loaded with spontaneity, anger, bongwater, dada and spiny/spiky dub punk, that had been left behind after 1981’s Flowers of Romance. End of World doesn’t necessarily abandon the fascinating and convincing artistic renewal PiL initiated in 2012 as much as use it as a foundation for a kind of Post Punk Classic Rock. In 2023, PiL appear comfortable and confident to emerge as the kind of progressive, weird yet smooth, post-punk BIG rock band that they, well, never really got a chance to be. I want to stress that: End of World very much feels like the PiL of First Issue, all grown up (but still with something to prove). Tight but loose, chilly but hot, big yet simple, simple but exotic, exotic but minimal, End of World somehow picks up on hints left by First Issue, Metal Box and Flowers of Romance and uses the seeds of that artistic adamancy and rhythmic power to grow a powerful modern rock record, the kind of deeply artistic classic rock band that the First Issue-era PiL just might have grown up to make. In a not so weird way, End of World reminds me (all at the same time) of the punk-via-classic rock-via-minimalist prog that fueled Bends-era Radiohead, Faith-era Cure, or second/third album Generation X. (Oddly, I also find this strutting, screwed-tight, over-wound + Benadryl + 99 Records sound reminiscent of the Tiny Music-era Stone Temple Pilots, if STP listened to ESG, Can, and Chas’n’Dave.)
End of World is full of so many subtle, powerful, alert, artistic, claustrophobic, shimmering, tasered and lasered rock songs. “Walls” is like nothing PiL or Lydon has ever recorded, while still being unmistakably a product of both. It’s an almost early Talking Heads/A Certain Ratio-like funk, with a vocal that’s a mixture of adamant spoken word and delicate melody. “Strange,” with a slippery, sliding bass and tremolo’d, trembling guitar, instantly goes on my PiL GOAT mixtape; mixing vulnerability, accusation and delicacy, all in one song, it provides — as so many things on this album do — an ideal frame and platform for Lydon, doing literally the best and most varied work of his career. “Strange” reveals the exposed, broken heart Lydon described on “Hawaii” – lyrically, it’s an extension of that song, describing the darkness of dealing with loss – and it does so spectacularly well. On “Dirty Murky Delight” Lydon does a rhythmic spoken word – not a rap nor a rant (in the Mark E. Smith/Sleaford Mods sense of the word), though a distant cousin to both – it has more to do with something Peter Cook or Stephen Fry might do, if, well, they were rappers, and it’s all over an irresistible, minimalist early ‘80s Factory-esque funk workout. End of World goes from strength to strength (oddly, the first two tracks, “Penge” and “End of the World,” are the weakest on the whole album, though still arresting); again and again, we hear how PiL have found a consistent, understated, unpretentious yet intelligent and constantly thumping modern rock sound that allows Lydon room to give the best performances of his career – yes, I mean that – while the band play a tight-but-loose chilled-but-sweaty punky post-punk, which any young band would envy, and any older music fan will instantly recognize with joy.
John Lydon consistently startles here. He has never sounded more confident, more certain of the personas and voices available to him. I say this again, without hesitation: End of World features the best vocals of Lydon’s career, full of variety, vulnerability, adamancy, heart, range, and character. Never has he played roles so well, never has he stepped so far out of his comfort zone yet found himself on extremely solid ground.
On End of World, Lydon and PiL show that 45 years after the debut of the PiL brand they can make a remarkable, exciting, compelling bolt of a punk/art rock record that both reveals the wisdom and the experience of the creators and their commitment to release something that demands being heard. Listen to End of World not just because of the name on the sleeve and the legend of the maker, but because it’s as good a rock record as you will hear in 2023.
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