THE ALBUM -- "Sandinista!," The Clash, Epic (E3X 37037).

"They say true talent will always emerge in time," sing the Clash on "Hitsville U.K.," and it's more than a justifiable boast: It represents the unstoppablle faith that is bottom line for both the album and the band. After last year's "London Calling," which shook rock out of its doldrums and lit a fire under the one-note, one-beat new wave establishment, small wonder lightning should strike not once but twice, this time in the form of a stunning three-record set entitled "Sandinista!"

One need not like the Clash -- or even "London Calling" -- to be jolted by the beauty and range of this work. There is the vague impression of namelessness about it, partly because of the variety of guest artists that people the 36 tracks, as well as the wild assortment of musical forms they explore.

Children sing songs about having their doors kicked in and being on the dole; the lazy, patois-laden labberish of a Jamaican radio host weaves itself around hard-rock in the surface revelry of Rio's Carnival noises; an old Mose Allison standard ("Look Here") is changed, a cappella , into a hymn of desperate hope whose question marks dangle threateningly in the spaces between notes. Throughout this musical anarchy runs the vocal patter of Mikey Dread, whose distinctive dub-singing provides a kind of conscience or inner voice for these strange goings-on.

All this might seem like a sure-fire formula for rock pretense -- in particular, the use of jazz, reggae, country/western, rhythm/blues, Gaelic folk and other forms by a band who, eight years ago, hadn't the expertise to tune their own instruments and, eight months ago, still hadn't the wherewithal to care for their rotting teeth and ragged clothes. Such is the stuff of rock legend, however, and in the unlikely hands of the Clash, "Sandinista!" comes off as unpretentious as it is authentic.

But "Sandinista!" does more than give elaborate proof of the band's talent and flexibility. As good rock music always has, it rails against social and political inequities while at the same time exuding the hope that change is possible, even in the face of insurmountable odds. This well-worn line would sound ridiculous coming from a rock group without the Clash's history of having faced those odds and beaten them.

Lyrically, "Sandinista!" is rock as inverted triage. Though the group's sentiments are anti-war -- almost militaristically so -- they consistently admonish us not to give up for gone the socially crippled, the economically maimed and the walking dead who populate ghetto streets and third-world marketplaces. Yet this is presented in terms no more strident nor inflexible than the music itself. They accept the fact that a good portion of the world's population is doomed to go slowly -- not with a bang but a whimper; but they're equally convinced that at least it will be a very loud whimper. b

Because of their commitment to the wounded of the world, the characters and towns, battlefields and housing projects of these songs are endowed with great vibrancy and life; the listener doesn't hear the album so much as habituate it.

In "Somebody Got Murdered," the singer sympathizes with the conditions leading to the tragedy, but after careful examination, rejects the act of murder as inexcusable: I been very tempted To grab it from the till I been very hungry But not enough to kill

Similar attitudes can be found on "Junco Pardner" and "Junkie Slip." In the former, the universal qualities of drug addiction, i.e ., con-man mentality and impenetrable insouciance, are dealt with humorously while in the latter, the more tragic aspects of the problem are explored. "I wasn't going that far . . . I said I wasn't doing it" sings Paul Simonon in an impeccable junkie's mumble, but before the tune is over, he's made the slip into "cold water fright -- what's going on?"

The Clash make good their name by providing musical contrasts to lyrical ideas in almost every song. "Charlie Don't Surf," for example, begins with the slow shush-shush of helicopter blades -- the background music of Vietnam -- and commences into mid-tempo, Beach-Boys style rock:

Charlie don't surf for his hamburger mama .

Charlie's gonna be a napalm star .

And on "Kingston Advice" and the fascinating dub saga, "One More Time," there is a tendency for the singers to go sharp, less from tone-deafness than from a panicky incredulity about the events of which they sing.

The album's centerpiece is "Washington Bullets," wherein the Sandinista rebels are applauded for having carried out their mission without interruption from superpowers. But lest you get the idea that the Clash are a group of posturing sans-culottes urging worldwide destruction and nihilism, consider the late-blooming highlight, "Living in Fame," throughout which Mikey Dread repeats over and over the band's real message: "Live up to your name/Or you will die in shame."

The Clash live up to their name with "Sandinista!," pointing up to the ineluctable conflict between the opiate of easy cynicism and hope, the taskmaster of the soul without which there need be no responsibility for the future. This album may not wake any sleeping lions, but it's sure to make for some fitful rest.