Naughty, Naughty Boys
Placebo’s music is so full of sex and drugs, it’s amazing the rock & roll doesn’t come across as an afterthought. On the contrary, Once More with Feeling proves the androgynous, pan-sexual, pan-European trio to be one of the UK’s most consistent singles bands.
With their self-titled 1996 debut, Placebo established the basic template on which they would base their career: lyrics unashamedly bathed in debauchery, set to bold melodies and delivered on top of crunchy, concise, glammy guitars. Listening to the four singles from that album, it’s easy to hear why the band became UK critics’ darlings. The playing and production (Sonic-Youth-inspired guitars, tight arrangements, sloppy drumming) toe the line between indie and punk with enticing energy, especially on breakthrough European hit “Nancy Boy” with its irresistible descending chorus. Brian Molko’s sassy Munchkin-on-ecstasy voice always gets compared to Geddy Lee from Rush, and that’s because the comparison is so apt. But there’s no mistaking Molko’s penchant for singing about heroin, lube, and angles of penetration a la “36 Degrees”. The delicately melodic “Teenage Angst” is a relative cold shower, with Molko complaining, “Nothing ever, ever goes my way”. If that’s the case, then he’s surely too sexed up and bombed out to care.
What happened next was one of those rare cases where a band that is expected to be a one-and-done phenomenon surprises everyone by exhibiting exponential growth on their second album. 1998’s Without You I’m Nothing was a striking, sophisticated comedown from the debut’s anything-goes allnighter, taking musical cues from Depeche Mode and the Cure as well as T-Rex and Nirvana. Where the sex and drugs had been a blessing, now they were a curse, and Molko and company alternately raged against and wallowed in them. Despite their tortured subject matter, the four singles here reveal a newly-focused and professional group that is equally effective at doing mad (the gorgeous New Order-like guitars of “You Don’t Care About Us”) and sad (claustrophobic mope-fest “Without You I’m Nothing”, on which David Bowie’s guest appearance actually detracts from the emotional impact of the album version). Steve Hewitt’s cracking drumming is a crucial upgrade, especially on slacker anthem “Pure Morning”, a song that was recorded as an afterthought during a b-side session and still sounds as fresh and spontaneous.
2000’s Black Market Music inevitably suffered by comparison and brought with it the inevitable backlash from UK critics, one of whom made a tongue-in-cheek reference to Molko’s “smack rhyming dictionary”. Actually, the four singles find the band honing their skills and actually becoming interested in songcraft. If “Taste in Men” is a stab at remaking “Pure Morning” with the rhythm from Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats”, it’s a satisfying, danceable one. “Slave to the Wage” is an uncharacteristic attempt to sympathize with the Working Class, and the melancholy keyboard line and Molko’s browbeaten delivery almost pull it off. “Black Eyed” is one of the bleakest UK singles of the post-Smiths era, all thundering drums and crashing crescendos as Molko repeats the phrase “broken home” like it’s a mantra. In retrospect, some critics have labeled Black Market Music as Placebo’s best album, and it’s well-represented here.
On the four singles from 2003’s Sleeping with Ghosts, Placebo wisely pump the guitars and tempos back up, delivering a redoubtable set of car stereo-sized tunes. “The Bitter End” is their most immediate, and immediately appealing, single since “Nancy Boy”, with a brilliant, punchy new-wave feel. The anthemic chorus and smart dynamics of “This Picture” are as close as Placebo have come to actually sounding like Rush—in a good way. Molko ponders “the fear of growing old” as he bids “farewell” to “the ashtray girl” with whom he’s been playing S&M . . . has he grown up? “Special Needs”, a gorgeous combination of swirling guitars, keyboards and pathos, would suggest so.
As Once More . . . is a singles compilation, it comes with the obligatory three “new” tracks. “Protégé Moi” is simply a French-language version of a Sleeping with Ghosts album track, while the whimsical “I Do” is fun but throwaway. “Twenty Years”, however, is Placebo’s most subtle, understated single to date, suggesting that there may still be fresh directions to explore.
Impressively, considering the band used a different producer on each studio album, One More With Feeling is a sonically cohesive listen, another sign that Placebo are a musical force to reckon with in their own right. All of those studio albums include gems not featured here, but for those who can take only so much rough sex, Once More . . . is a consistently thrilling package.
Ironically, the bottom line with Placebo is neither sex nor drugs. As long as Molko and company keep coming up with new combinations of power chords, it’s the rock & roll that will make this band worth coming back for.