Regardless of missing out on the chance to appear in Eurovision, Public Image Ltd are set to storm through with a new album. Where the lush tones of Hawaii may have failed to stoke the fires of Irish hearts, Penge takes a different direction entirely. Just two tracks down and it would appear the upcoming PiL album is having a crisis of character. While John Lydon may have the conviction to strike through with this Celtic Rock-like attempt, it feels far removed from the reflective charm of the first End of the World single. Where Penge may be an attempt of a rallying cry to open up their latest album, PiL have not moved themselves far enough away from post-pandemic Jethro Tull noise.
Those bridges and hooks of the early morning in the fog still contain Lydon’s vocal presence but the dominant lyrics he once rattled off are absent. He seems to be a shell. It is a strange and immediate contrast to the powerful work on Hawaii, a deeply personal and expectedly moving track. But the story behind it was so strong and likely did much of the heavy lifting. Penge does not have that, and instead, it is more a trial run of octave shifts for the man that was Johnny Rotten. He still has that charm of the early days as evidenced by the continued appeal to youth and those he fears may have their destiny stolen from them, but Penge is a weightless and unbalanced track.
At its best, it is a B-Side variant of the new Jethro Tull album, RökFlöte. PiL were great at maintaining an ever-shifting style with a core concept of impressive lyrical devotion. It is here in scattered moments, rather than as a whole. Penge is not the head of the wood as hoped but the bottom of the barrel. At least it is still near wood. Either that or Lydon has a soft spot for Bromley, London. PiL’s flirtation with gothic rock is a surprise but quite the neutral one. It neither inspires nor offends. Somehow, Penge takes what PiL have been about for so many decades and makes it feel passive. The last word PiL should be associated with is passive, but here they are. A passive flirtation with harsher rock styles neither grows on a following listen nor diminishes itself as extraordinarily poor.
Not quite the shot to the heart Hawaii was, but this could be a stumbling block. End of the World certainly makes sense for the album title when Penge has all the brooding, hammering thumps of those final days. It makes sense, as Hawaii does, with a backstory behind it. But story and effectiveness are fundamentally different for Penge, a track that should be full of blistering focus yet never feels as though it has much steam within. PiL have still managed to maintain a lack of theme to their albums and that serves them well for maintaining projects and choices like this. Hawaii and Penge are two sides of a rusted coin, but the sincerity of one is weighed down by the confused tempo of the other.