Rolling Stone, February 20th, 1992

© 1992 Rolling Stone

That What is Not

by Chuck Eddy

At the end of "Acid Drops," the first song on the seventh consecutive Public Image Ltd. album that it's tough to care one way or another about, the man who used to be Johnny Rotten samples himself hectoring, "No future, no future, no future." This is probably John Lydon's idea of a joke -- a decade and a half after "God Save the Queen," Lydon's "no future" is our present. And while you could grant him the benefit of the doubt if you think the world's a worse place than when he bagan, it's sad to ponder how the prophet's own future wound up. In a pop climate that he laid the groundwork for -- from hip-hop declamation to industrial abrasion, from thrash blitzkrieg to Gothic mope, there's barely an alternative available today that Never Mind the Bollocks and Metal Box didn't anticipate -- he's the consummate boring old corporate pro.

Does he realise that? Lydon's so far out of it that his crackpot crankiness can almost be charming, even cute -- that's the effect of a lot of That What Is Not. He's still basically ranting agains chicanery and smoke screens ("What does it mean? What does anything mean?" he sings), but the music is pleasurable enough to suggest that he rants are just there to fill spaces because that's all he could think of to say. And though the craftsman in him has picked up tips from every Young Turk who ever ripped him off, he almost invariably one-ups them. Few factory-noise guerrillas have his sense of melody, few oceanic feedback-droners hav his sense of rhythm, and his voice still sputters and snarls and guffaws and gargles in ways that only prove what passive twits most post-hardcore poets really are.

Still, That What Is Not mainly comes off like a unduly eclectic, if uncharacteristically catchy, progressive-rock record. By current art-metal standards it's fairly typical: PiL (whoever that is these days) tries to sound, by turns, Teutonic, Middle Eastern, jangling, funky and loud. If "Love Hope" is a fast Zep knockoff that outkicks Soundgarden (not hard to do, really), most of the rest feels an awful like old Van Der Graaf Generator -- somber but cynical and ultimately just silly. The album's best jokes are the ones Lydon probably didn't mean to be funny.


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