Public Image Limited: Disappointed
t first listen, repugnant. The title says it all, doesn’t it? It’s sterile late 80s electrofunk, Kick-era INXS, with a black choir that no doubt had a better time wailing on Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” a hit around the same time as this thing was scaling the college charts. The only mark of originality is That Voice, braying above the din, still convinced that anger is an energy even as the musical structures in which it was trapped sounded increasingly compromised. What happens when Richard III demands a horse and there’s none in sight?
Thus the former J. Rotten fulfilled his own prophecy: no future. Strewn amidst the wreckage of a career with bigger expectations than the Sex Pistols could ever hope to meet, John Lydon’s band Public Image Ltd was in its 1989 incarnation merely a faceless bureaucracy whose name Chief Executive Officer Lydon had intended as a crude irony in 1978. They’d recorded seminal work: one great album, several barmy singles. But he was too honest to fake U2-style sincerity and too much of the court jester to sit quietly through arena-rock machinations. That pivotal line in “God Save The Queen” encapsulated Lydon’s dialectic: we mean it, man! “I am not commodity,” he said on his first single; “I’m crossing over into enterprise,” he proclaimed on “This is Not A Love Song.” Who do we believe? If Lydon believes in anything it’s Newton’s law: one stance is a reaction against a previous one; if he can have it both ways, why not? The mindfuck is Lydon’s greatest weapon, deployed with a genius’ timing.
“Disappointed” marked the last time Lydon made his compromises fascinating, the last time we could believe that he was a victim rather than an Orson Welles figure: an enfant terrible whose paranoia and self-destructive tantrums produces art as transparent about its unwitting bad faith as any bathetic Top 40 balladeer’s. By the time “Disappointed” hits the four-minute mark the crass gimmickry—that choir, the Edge-like guitar ripples—turns in on itself, sucking Lydon himself into its shallow depths. “You’re really so sad,” he says about a former friend, the sneer pitched at a higher key than one Lydon has previously attempted, so that it’s clear the singer is himself the object of contempt. His “erratic, haphazard, to-ing and fro-ing” is this pedestrian track’s most compelling element, which is of course the mark of true subversion, if not as world-historic as when Rotten called for anarchy: different times call for different tunes.