Before Bob Marley, there was Jimmy Cliff – the singer whose 1970 single "Vietnam" was allegedly called "the greatest protest song ever written" by Bob Dylan, who inspired Paul Simon to fly to Jamaica and hire Cliff's backing band to cut "Mother and Child Reunion," and who starred in The Harder They Come, the 1972 film that broke reggae globally and whose Cliff-centered soundtrack initially defined the genre. Then Marley grabbed the spotlight, and Cliff became a crossover ambassador, touring the globe on lukewarm LPs that rarely captured his early magic.
But Rebirth does that and more – it's the strongest case for the vitality of West Indian roots music that anyone has made in decades. Cliff has a fan in Rancid frontman-turned-producer Tim Armstrong, whose band backs him throughout, nailing old-school rhythms and arrangements flush with skastyle brass and rocksteady organ shuffles. The singer's warm, high tenor sounds weathered but Iggy Pop-muscular on originals that straddle past and present. "Now there's gathering on Main Street/Shuffling on Wall Street," he sings on "Children's Bread," a jam riddled with grunts and hollers. It's a traditional Jamaican sufferer's anthem that addresses the Occupy generation with spooky accuracy.
Rebirth comes at a time when the revival of vintage American R&B is everywhere – see Sharon Jones, Adele, Black Keys, Raphael Saadiq and the late Amy Winehouse – as artists discover or rediscover the power of horn charts and soul singing sans Auto-Tune. Cliff has cooked up an album good enough that it might kick off a similar revisiting of Jamaica's homegrown iterations of that music – reggae, rocksteady, ska.
But Rebirth isn't just about Cliff reconnecting with the styles he helped invent; it's also about him exploring his own backstory. "Reggae Music" is a vivid Marley-style history lesson that name-checks veteran producer Leslie Kong, Cliff's early hitmaking colleagues Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe, and the prolific Dynamic Sound Studios in Kingston. "Cry No More" is a lover's rock lullaby, with Cliff's falsetto time-ravaged and no less poignant for it. "Outsider" echoes the American soul that profoundly informed Jamaican music of the era, an update of Cliff's 1967 Motown tribute "Give and Take."
Most of the originals are strong enough to pass as covers of classic jams. The actual covers, meanwhile, are spot on. "World Upside Down" revises the lyrics of a Joe Higgs reggae gem, shifting the tempo up toward ska and the sentiment from hippie ruefulness to preacher outrage. Rancid's "Ruby Soho" is transformed from a Jamaican-music mash note into the genuine article. Best of all is the acoustic take on the Clash's “Guns of Brixton." Cliff sings it with steely understatement for a new era of urban resistance, and the lyrical reference to the film that changed Cliff's life – and reggae itself – only deepens the song's resonance. "You see, he feels like Ivan," Cliff sings. "Born under the Brixton sun/His game is called surviving/At the end of The Harder They Come." It's the sound of history circling in wondrous ways.