Review Summary: 'Why worry now? You're not dead yet'. And so says John Lydon.
The first two Public Image records were vast sonic experiments in what could be made of the shattered remnants of rock and pop music. They combined wiry guitars, guttural bass-lines and John Lydon's incessant whining and droning about absolutely nothing in particular. They are usually seen as absolute stone cold classics of the post-punk genre, and rightly so, they fused the energy of punk, and set it to a real agenda, the agenda of social reform, injustice, and generally more complex issues than getting stoned and wrecking your house because you were too blind drunk to know better.
They will always be remembered, and almost always preferred to the Sex Pistol's jagged, childish and brackish approach to music, one that was arguably one of more destructive than creative and subversive, the band that paid absolutely no heed to any musical parameters before their first, and only album.
Flowers of Romance then is a tricky album to pigeonhole. It features none of the features that made Public Image such a viable and strangely successful band, Jah Wobble is gone, instead leaving Keith Levene to take over any (extremely) minimal bass parts on the album, thus marginalizing Levene's own impact on the album, losing his influential and key sound, the wiry guitar of Metal Box. It does however feature all the things that make Public Image a great band, John Lydon's incandescent vocals somehow manage to seem enraged, twisted and blase at all times, his lyrics seemingly being chosen at absolute random; "Now in the summer I could be happy or in distress, depending on the company, on the veranda. Talk of the future or reminisce. Behind the dialogue, we're in a mess", lyrics which either make total sense, or absolutely none at all.
The album is also heavily built on percussion, with by far and away the most talented musician PiL ever had, Martin Atkins taking up the helm for half of the percussion duties, which are shared with Levene. Most tracks feature a truly ridiculous drumbeat, which divides opinion so evenly it's frightening. The opening track 'Four Enclosed Walls', is what it says, a claustrophobic and dizzying track built around a drumbeat that sounds exactly like a watch ticking, but with some more crazy tribal drumming thrown in to enhance (read: terrify the listener) the mood.
Depending on whichever way you look at it, this is the most important Public Image album. The album is so vastly experimental and densely layered so as to reward listeners immediately, but also provide pleasure on repeat listens. It's not for the faint hearted though, and throughout it has a nasty, menacing style which never lets up. It sounds like an endless, tireless and utterly thankless pursuit for new highs and lows, in which Public Image use some extremely industrial and harsh tempered rhythms, as is such in the buzz-saw instrumental 'Hymie's Him'.
The constant and ruthless seeking of a frightening sound comes together on Banging the Door. A simple enough song which sees Lydon dealing with a needy friend. 'What do you want? You're irritating go away it's not my fault that you're lonely'. The drums compliment the menacing and utterly hateful feel, providing a literal knock over which Lydon spews (bizarrely singable) vitriolic rants about wanting to be left alone. The track sums up the album, it either hits home the brilliance of the release, or it quite literally irritates the listener, as John Lydon is a "love/hate" character at the best of times, this is him at his most whiny and arguably most pretentious.
The idea that Public Image were creating this sort of music at the time is a scary one, only Throbbing Gristle could claim to be creating such nasty, menacing and head-spinning music, and they certainly never achieved such widespread success as PiL did. So why were they successful? Some would believe that Lydon's celebrity influenced buyers to purchase the record, but that is just wishful thinking. It is of course that Lydon's presence in music has always been an inspirational and simplistic one. He seems identifiable, and through all his pretensions his agenda lies solely with his love for music and his benevolent hatred for all authority figures.
Flowers of Romance sounds utterly out of time with everything else in 1981, yet it fits perfectly in place amongst some of the other great releases. The only problem is, did John Lydon mean to create such a brilliant album? If he didn't and he came up with a raggedy bunch of songs he thought were 'a bit weird', it would infinitely tarnish the album. An album whose sound so gloriously unhinged and mental throughout, and for it to be premeditated would arguably take the edge off it.
Four Enclosed Walls,
Banging the Door,
Under the House,
Flowers of Romance.