In a month that sees the 50-year anniversary of Jamaican independence and Usain Bolt dominating events in London, it seems fitting to have a reggae revival on our hands. So it’s a great act of serendipity to see that the legendary Jimmy Cliff has returned with a new album.
Calling the album Rebirth may wrongfoot a few listeners. Unlike Bobby Womack and Gil Scott-Heron‘s recent renewals, this isn’t a case of parachuting a youthful producer to re-vamp a career. Granted, Rancid‘s Tim Armstrong is at the controls, but the sound is still unmistakably Cliff’s. The album’s maxim seems to be that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and in Cliff’s case it sure is not broke.
The only real change from vintage Cliff is that Rebirth embraces more of a global audience. The album’s opening track World Upside Down lets us know it’s still a wonderful world with beautiful people in it, but it’s tough times for everybody and not just on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. One More has been getting plenty of deserved airplay, its lyrics proclaim that Cliff has “one more story to tell” but on the strength of this track you’re hoping several more are on the way. There’s also an intriguing cover of The Clash‘s Guns of Brixton’s where the original’s reggae DNA is suitably revealed. There’s even a sly wink to Cliff himself in the lyrics referring to Cliff’s breakout portrayal of Ivan in the classic film The Harder They Come.
The joyful shuffle of Reggae Music forms a potted autobiography of the artist’s career and a celebration of the genre. It’s a great history lesson and one of the few criticisms you can make of the album is that it would have made a superb opener rather than sitting in the middle of the disc. Although it deliberately doesn’t try to re-invent the reggae wheel, there’s no denying Rebirth’s qualities as a feel-good experience.
The album’s greatest trick is that Jimmy Cliff’s voice has remained undiminished over the years. Other artists of his vintage find it hard to conceal vocals ravaged by time, but the Cliff of Rebirth is no less than the Cliff of The Harder They Come. The same joy and exuberance come through your speakers as they do on the classic releases. There’s a lesson to be learnt in there somewhere, and if happiness is indeed the key to longevity, then it’s worth extending your life by giving Rebirth a spin.