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Greg Waterman

Reggae icon Jimmy Cliff’s new full-length album, his first in years, marks a return to the sound that made him a star.

Not many music legends in their 60s create and perform with the same vitality and energy that defined their early days. But 64-year-old reggae icon Jimmy Cliff is a rare exception, continuing to write songs of social consciousness and to perform shows around the world.

Next month, Cliff will release Rebirth (Collective Sounds, Price TBD), his first full-length album in more than seven years, following an EP titled Sacred Fire that was released last November. The album marks the continuation of a nearly 50-year career in which the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has brought Jamaica’s signature sounds to the world at large with reggae hits like “You Can Get It if You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross” and the theme for the 1972 classic film The Harder They Come (in which he also starred).

Cliff’s recent tunes were produced by Tim Armstrong, best known as the lead singer of the ska punk band Rancid. Though they may seem like an unlikely pairing, Cliff credits Armstrong with the return to his natural sound. “I’ve tried very different genres in my career, but this one is strictly a reggae album,” he says. “Tim contributed a lot to that, because he’s a connoisseur. Things I’d overlooked before, he’d bring forward and show me the value in them.”

For the Sacred Fire EP, Armstrong and Cliff gave authentic reggae treatments to covers of songs by Bob Dylan and the Clash, as well as Rancid’s hit “Ruby Soho.” But Cliff says that the new full-length contains more of his original tunes, having been moved to write by recent political unrest in the world.

“There’s a song called ‘Children’s Bread’ that has to do with what’s going on in the Occupy Wall Street movement and in other parts of the world,” he explains. “I just listen to everything that’s going on. I’m sensitive to the sociopolitical situations in the world. I comment on them.”
For Cliff, who spends around four months a year in his native Jamaica, the new album brings a sense of closure to a portion of his prolific career.

“What I’m doing on this album,” he says, “is kind of completing a chapter that was incomplete.”