Placebo formed in London in 1994 and, for the most part, the band’s popularity has resided there. Placebo’s trio of musicians — Brian Molko (vocals and guitar), Stefan Olsdal (bass), and Steve Hewitt (drums) — have, stylistically throughout the band’s career, leaned towards glam and (being a product of the mid-’90s) alternative rock.
Between 1994 and 2004, the band released four studio albums: Placebo, Without You I’m Nothing, Black Market Music and Sleeping With Ghosts. Originally released in 2004, Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996 – 2004 encompasses 16 hits from the band’s first four albums as well as three additional cuts, celebrating Placebo’s tenth anniversary. To celebrate their almost-20th anniversary,Once More With Feeling now receives reissue treatment. Organized in chronological fashion, the collection provides both the casual and dedicated fan Placebo’s preeminent hits in one setting. The superb compilation also shows the band’s natural musical progression.
1996’s self-titled debut album represents the first quartet of tracks. “36 Degrees” initiates, delivering a punk-pop track steeped equally in gargantuan guitar and emo references (“Shoulders, toes, and knees / I’m 36 degrees”). “Teenage Angst” illustrates the “utter despair” motif even more convincingly, major key aside. “Nancy Boy” is the crowning achievement, with front man Molko epitomizing risqué at its most potent: “Alcoholic kind of mood / lose my clothes, lose my lube / cruising for a piece of fun / looking out for number one.” The quick-paced “Bruise Pristine” sums up the sentiment of the first segment, “we were born to lose.”
The pummeling drums and heavy sound of “Pure Morning” begins the songs compiled from 1998’s Without You I’m Nothing. Repetitive in its lyrical approach,“Pure Morning” is easy to comprehend and catchy. Molko’s vocals are more mature, exhibiting better clarity compared to earlier cuts. “You Don’t Care About Us” recalls punk/garage-rock at its best, with some superb edgy guitar and bass parts. “Every You Every Me” continues to show the beautiful pains of youthful romance with lines like “Carve your name into my arm / instead of stressed, I lie here charmed.” The mid-tempo “Without You I’m Nothing” (featuring David Bowie) is valedictory, among the compilation’s best in its mysterious, odd, and breathtaking fashion.
“Taste in Men” signifies Placebo’s progression, evidenced by 2000’s acclaimed Black Market Music. Unsettling and more maturely dark, “Taste In Men” finds Molko confronting the ladies to “change [their] taste in men”. On “Slave to the Wage”, the band samples Pavement’s “Texas Never Whispers”. The epic refrain is catchy as always: “It’s a maze for rats to try / it’s a race, a race for rats / a race for rats to die.” “Special K” cleverly alludes to spiritual inquiry (“can the savior be for real / or are you just my seventh seal?”) while “Black-Eyed” features a compelling ultra-syncopated groove and makes prominent use of sound effects.
The songs included from 2003 effort Sleeping With Ghost are less progressive but still enjoyable. “The Bitter End” finds the bass knob turned up to showcase some of Olsdal’s best playing. Molko’s guitar bites as well. While his nasally delivery can be grating on some earlier cuts, he thankfully shows his seasoning over time.“This Picture” continues the punk ecstasy of the band’s past, while “Special Needs” upholds the “tortured” poetry bit. Neither cut trumps the brilliant “English Summer Rain”, arguably one of the most distinct offerings of the set.
Three new cuts — all from 2004 — conclude Once More With Feeling. “Protége Moi” contains verses in French while the refrain is in English (“Protect me from what I want / protect me from what I want”). “I Do”, with its gentlemany lyricism, seems nearly too mature for a band based in punk revivalism. “Twenty Years” looks forward, closing the compilation appropriately with the future in mind.
Overall, Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996 – 2004 is a superb snapshot of Placebo’s early discography. It is a compilation with little to fault and is a solid compilation by all means.