It’s rare to be able to listen to a brand new album, and have it already feel like it has that classic vibe to it. I guess it’s a bit easier when it’s coming from someone who has already been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Jimmy Cliff’s huge return to the music world, Rebirth, comes after an eight year gap in albums, but sounds as fresh and revolutionary as anything he’s done in over twenty years.
Rebirth teams Cliff with producer/Rancid frontman, Tim Armstrong, and the union is the perfect sound to bring Cliff’s incredible reggae tenor back to the forefront, and introduce him to a new generation. Sometimes I wonder what musicians who died in their prime might sound like today if they had lived and kept making music, and with Rebirth, we get an authentic taste of a rejuvenated Cliff (at age 64) and his epic sound that helped popularize the reggae genre.
After last year’s sneak peek, the five-song EP Sacred Fire, I couldn’t wait to hear Cliff and Armstrong’s return to the music world in full effect. You can check my review of the EP here. All but Cliff’s Bob Dylan cover appear on Rebirth, and even though I played the EP to death, I was still excited to hear the other tracks amongst the new LP tunes as well. Most notable is Cliff’s cover of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” slowed down to a sweet reggae groove, and re-introducing himself to the world, as he name checks himself in lyrics about his main character Ivanhoe Martin in the film that started it all, The Harder They Come (How many people can do that?!)
Rebirth begins with the upbeat “World Upside Down,” and I’d be lying if I said this song hasn’t been firmly planted in my brain for the last three weeks after first listening. It’s the perfect opener, and despite its feel-good rhythm, you can still feel the urgency in Cliff’s vocals as he sings about “Crime and violence, poverty and starvation, ecological calamity, economic instability.” His political message rings throughout the whole album, but never incredulously, and on “Children’s Bread,” his standpoint weaves in Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew to point out discord and injustice in our world.
“Reggae Music” is instantly catchy and singable, and sounds like it’s already been a hit for years. It tells the history of the musical genre and it’s ska beginnings, and works forward from 1964 to today. Hopefully, tunes like this and Cliff’s re-emergence in our culture will spur on a return of good reggae music. “One More” and “Rebel Rebel” sound urgent and share a message that requires action of the listener, and Armstrong’s production helps the lyrics stand out, demanding to be heard and understood.
On “Cry No More,” despite cracking vocals on the chorus, Cliff’s delivery shows off an emotional and inspirational tale of overcoming the obstacles in your life. Perhaps at both his most epic and intimate, “Blessed Love” serves as an anthem for the album and provides an answer for all the societal problems he sang about on previous tracks. Stellar comeback album, and an instant classic from one of the biggest names in the history of reggae.