Graded on a Curve: Public Image Ltd.,
The Flowers of Romance

Talk about your careering; John Lydon upset the rock ’n’ roll apple cart forever with the Sex Pistols, made a pioneering post-punk statement with Public Image Ltd.’s First Issue, and took existential dread to new heights with the dub-wise Metal Box, and I was with him all the way.

Ah, but then came 1981’s The Flowers of Romance, and it brought me up short. With bassist Jah Wobble gone Lydon said to hell with the dub experiments and doubled down on the percussion, and released one of the least listener friendly LPs you ever will hear. The Flowers of Romance’s severe, musique concrète-cluttered soundscapes are daring, no doubt about it–Lydon made no concessions or compromises whatsoever in pursuit of his musical vision, and this LP is as radical a statement in its way as Never Mind the Bollocks was in its.

The problem, at least for me, is that the LP is interesting in a way I don’t find very interesting, and challenging in a way I don’t find very rewarding. The devil’s in the details on such musical drags as “Phenagen,” “Track 8,” and “Hymie’s Him,” but picking them out isn’t much fun–I hate to use the word boring, but it’s the word that springs to mind.

Public Image Ltd. came up the loser when Jah Wobble left and Lydon decided to dispense with the bass altogether, and the proof is on the refreshingly propulsive “Banging the Door,” on which Keith Levene condescends to play the instrument. It alone packs the oomph of good rock ’n’ roll, and while it’s true that Lydon wasn’t out to make rock ’n’ roll music–probably thought it was dead and saw himself as a citizen of some brave new world trying to produce something new from the rubble–those of us who still detected signs of life in the beast can hardly be blamed for checking out.

Metal Box pulls you in a way that The Flowers of Romance rarely does–the first is a groove record, while the latter dispenses with the groove almost altogether. The very noise-cluttered “Francis Massacre” moves but it doesn’t groove, and I find myself wishing Wobble was around to lend his spastic, rubber band touch to the very minor-key funky “Go Back,” which is forced to get by on drums and Levene’s twisted guitar stylings alone.

Such cuts as “Four Enclosed Walls,” “Track 8,” and “Under the House” afford their small pleasures; Lydon’s faux Middle-Eastern keening and some brutalist drumming keep “Four Enclosed Walls” afloat, if barely, even if they don’t make for very compelling listening. “Track 8” scrapes by on the power of Levene’s atonal single note playing and Lydon’s sing-song vocals; it’s a deranged lullaby about pre-menstrual tension, and once again I find myself wishing the song would pick itself up and actually go somewhere. And all of the primitive drum drum drum of “Under the House” takes it nowhere; you get Lydon warbling to no good end and not much else, unless you count the eerie undercurrents that add some texture to the thing.

When push comes to shove, only the title cut and “Banging the Door” disturb the murky anomie that is The Flowers of Romance; the former was the LP’s only single, and for a single it was pretty damn revolutionary–“God Save the Queen” it ain’t. But that’s alright; the bowed bass and Lydon’s muezzin keening provide the perfect overlay to a melody that is both seductive and sinister.

Everybody and her punk uncle considers this baby a ground-breaking and highly influential post-punk statement; Kurt Cobain adored the damn thing, and who am I to argue with the King of Grunge? That said, the only song on The Flowers of Romance I ever want to hear is “Banging the Door,” and I tend to feel better when the LP’s not around. Lydon thought rock was dead? Fine. But I wish he’d found a substitute with a pulse.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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