PiL as band have not sounded as perfectly balanced in years as they do in this current incarnation with newcomer Scott Firth on bass and synths and vets Lu Edmonds on guitar and Bruce Smith on drums. John Lydon is outrageously and infectiously energized here and still manages, across over thirty years, to create music that is both urgent and truly alternative. There is not quite anything out there that sounds like PiL and even PiL manage to maintain identity and familiarity while never quite sounding like any PiL that came before.
"One Drop" is This is PiL's masterpiece, with Lydon preaching political change without coming across as snide and instead communicating real possibility. Set against the reggae flavors that have become synonymous with much of PiL's early work, "One Drop" drives infectiously and immediately and was an obvious choice as the album's first release, dropping as a Record Store Day EP a month prior to the album's release. When a 56-year-old man screams we are the ageless / we are teenagers and you can both believe it and dance to it, a song has to be rated a success.
"Deeper Water" continues the liquid theme of "One Drop" and provides a hypnotic groove that segueways smoothly from the prior number. Lydon claims the track is a largely improvised single take and, while it remains nautically obtuse, lyrically, provides an effective art drone that satisfies and resolves before it goes stale. The rocker "Terra-Gate" follows, ruminating wildly on the theme of animosity. It thrashes about but, despite some nice guitar work from Edmonds, rarely feels fierce.
"Human" serves as an early centerpiece of sorts and finds guitars bouncing over a more sinister synthesizer track seemingly culled from Benny Benassi's more power-tool-laden exploits. "Human"'s optimism prevails lyrically and sonically, with the lighter elements of the track eventually dominating and follower "I Must Be Dreaming" seems a natural, if undynamic, transition. Again, harsher synth elements intrude into a pleasantly melodic meditation with increasingly sharp guitars stabbing into the sound and threatening a transformation to nightmare.
"It Said That" wakes the listener and feels and sounds like quintessential, confrontational early PiL: not easily swallowed. "The Room I Am In" is essentially a spoken-word piece on personal prisons (Lydon says specifically "about drugs and council flats"). The music feels largely improvisational (and, admittedly, forgettable), supposedly edited from a half-hour jam.
"Lollipop Opera" is a brilliant nonsense piece incorporating didgeridoo sounds woven through a fabric of reggae and Eastern influences and featuring an affected vocal I dare anyone not to sing along to, even if I have no idea what the hell any of it means. After "One Drop," "Lollipop Opera" is definitely the dominant danceable track on This is PiL, serving as exemplar of the fucked-up fusion that make up the most successful of PiL's recordings.
Far be it from me to complain about an abundance of material but This is PiL could have ended with "Lollipop Opera" and kept me largely satisfied (earlier albums were indeed marvels of brevity, album and Happy? clocking in at forty and thirty-five minutes, respectively). Instead, there's still another quarter of the record to go and, sadly, it's two-thirds underwhelming. "Fool" drones on in the dullest of ways about a relationship gone bad and rhymes itself with "tool" one too many times. "Reggie Song" is not a play on "reggae" but instead apparently about someone named "Reginald." It's not a bad track, musically, and presents a catchy chorus but lacks any real dynamic range and, ultimately, commits a crime of blandness, its Shine! backing vocals recalling for this listener the worst of Bowie's phoned-in EMI-era pop moments. "Out of the Woods" finishes strong and tackles, of all things, the story of a black solider serving on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War (supposedly - if one doesn't consult Lydon's own comments on his songs they may remain more deliciously ambiguous). Driven by a beautiful, simple, deep bassline, this is a great, interesting number and one which would have been better served sequenced earlier into the album.
This is PiL is a very, very good record. Considering the gap between it and its predecessor (twenty years have passed since I walked into Record Town and bought a brand-new copy of That What is Not) , it has no right to sound this fantastically fresh. This is PiL, edited and resequenced, could have been a couple great EPs. If you haven't heard "One Drop" in its four-song configuration yet, I challenge you to try that first and then decide which is the more satisfying platter. That said, PiL have always been a little uneven and, really, that has always added to the project's charm. It's never clean, never safe, never predictable save for the fact that it's always interesting and here This is PiL is no exception. Given the band's trajectory (or lack thereof) and the state of music in general, PiL remain uncannily timely in their ability to resurface when needed, shake us awake and slap us across our collective faces, making us shuffle our feet to their beats all the while.