In 1972, Jimmy Cliff’s performance in The Harder They Come introduced U.S. filmgoers to the vibrant desperation ofKingston life, and his inspirational yet tough-minded songs highlighted the movie’s soundtrack. Already an established hitmaker at the time, Cliff seemed poised to become Jamaica’s first international superstar. Instead he misjudged American audiences, pitching vague homilies and pop professionalism to the AM crowd, allowing Bob Marley to leapfrog past him by assuming a prophetic mantle and exciting hip FM rockers with his political defiance.
On Rebirth, Cliff now eyes a more judicious audience: middle-aged rockers weaned on punk and alternative. Shepherded by his producer, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, the 64-year-old rides the lithe throwback grooves of reggae revivalists the Aggrolites and Hepcat with a young man’s grace, particularly on two smartly chosen covers — the Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton,” which transplanted Cliff’s character from The Harder They Come into a London slum, and Rancid’s “Ruby Soho.” (“Rebel, Rebel” is good too, but it’s not the Bowie tune.) Cliff’s political complaints haven’t grown much more specific — “World Upside Down” cries out against “Too much injustice,” then proposes “love” as the answer. But his exhortations not only retain the warmth and humane spirit of old but have gained depths of pained sympathy with age, especially when he laments how “They took the children’s bread/ And gave it to the dogs.”