More about: Placebo
Written after a gruelling greatest hits tour, Never Let Me Go sees Placebo making music purely for themselves, with some captivating results.
Having burst through onto the charts in the mid-90s in a mess of eyeliner, Placebo were a thrilling antidote to tawdry Britpop, bringing angst, threat and glam to bear on an increasingly dull lad culture, while winning fans in Robert Smith and David Bowie. In the near-decade since their last studio album, Placebo have settled into the role of elder statesmen, with the thrashing guitars and threat of their early '90s material giving way to softer, major key songs on more recent releases.
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While their greatest hits tour (note: A Place For Us to Dream is a brilliant retrospective and a perfect gateway drug for newcomers) provided a financial shot in the arm, the band became tired of the '90s hits they were compelled to parade night after night.
On ‘Never Let Me Go’ Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal strip their process down to the ground and build it back up again. Starting with artwork, then song titles, and only then beginning to compose music, the thirteen tracks are expansive, varied and crucially vital; Placebo sound fully invested here after a few lackadaisical cuts on their recent studio albums.
‘Forever Chemicals’ is a shuddering introduction to the album, glitching synths and staccato drum loops commanding attention, before a hard left turn into ‘Beautiful James’, a gorgeous lullaby carried by a earworm synth line. ‘Hugz’, a straight ahead rocker, and ‘Happy Birthday in the Sky’, a moody rumination on death, are classic Placebo cuts that you feel the duo could bash out in their sleep.
More interesting is ‘The Prodigal’, pairing Molko’s one-of-a-kind vocals with a full orchestra. So often bands can lazily just whack strings on top of a bog standard ballad late in production, but here the orchestration is the foundation of the composition, pizzicato notes adorning the verses before the violins lead a countermelody in the chorus.
‘Twin Demons’ is a late highlight, echoing the propulsive rhythms of early hit ‘Special K’ and built to be played live. Towards the end of the LP things are taken down a notch, drums artfully tapped rather than thrashed, and acoustic guitar and piano given room to breathe. Individually solid, these tracks would perhaps benefit from being spaced out across the running order, as the final strait gets a bit bogged down.
For all the invention and variation, the most impactful track is perhaps the most basic from a musical perspective. ‘Try Better Next Time’ is a joyous, major key smirk at our probable (and deserved, Molko contends) fate at the hands of a climate catastrophe that’s infectiously catchy.
“I’m as psychologically brutalised by the last few years as anybody who has a heart enough to care,” Molko has said of the record’s subject matter. While not overtly political, there is a anger simmering across the album, aiming at Instagram’s “infinity mirror of narcissism”, humanity’s pathetic shrug at the prospect of ecocide (‘Try Better Next Time’) or baulking at digital surveillance on ‘Surrounded by Spies’ (no surprise the band have banned mobile devices from their release shows this week; we could all do with a respite).
Staying relevant in a commercial sense is likely beyond their control at this point so fair play to Molko and Olsdal for keeping things interesting for themselves, deconstructing their process and trying new things; even if the result isn’t wildly different from what came before, it’s great to have Placebo back and raging against the machine.
Never Let Me Go arrives 25 March via Elevator Lady/SO Recordings.
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More about: Placebo