Rarely does a band release an album over a decade into its career that has so much pressure with it. Placebo’s Battle for the Sun faces a triple threat: It is the band’s first album with a new (and 22-year-old) drummer, Steve Forrest; it is also the band’s first Vagrant Records release (after leaving Virgin); and it is being released at the same time as Virgin releases Placebo’s back catalog. Placebo’s adversary in this battle is clearly themselves.
Fortunately, fans can stop holding their breath now: Battle for the Sun is unmistakably a Placebo album. It carries on the more ornate instrumentation of its later releases but with all the elements that won over Placebo’s fans in the first place. The biggest sonic change seems to be the increased prominence of keyboards on the album — a definite change for the better. Whether the change is enough to win over new converts is questionable since, as mentioned before, this is unmistakably a Placebo album.
One of the greatest contributions of the keyboards is its versatility. Take the title track, for instance. Brian Molko’s trademark quasi-glam snarling is alive and well, and the vocals bear a strong resemblance to the vocal work and production on Placebo’s earlier, more spare albums. “You are a cheap and nasty fake,” he sings in the hybrid of dispassion and angst that only he has mastered. The melody and relentless drums further the song, but a triumphant keyboard line emerges and grows in prominence, giving the song a lovely, transcendent element. Though the song moves through many changes in its first half, the second half is largely comprised of Molko singing, “Dream brother / My killer / My lover,” over and over (and in the same tone) until, inexplicably, the music ends and Molko declares he will battle for the sun. A song like this one perfectly illustrates the ambivalence that has always been a part of Placebo’s reputation — the catchy and sparkly music is undercut by Molko’s limited vocal range and the lyrical theme of lover-as-destroyer that shows up all too often in Placebo’s work.
The keyboards also contribute a masterful element on “Bright Lights”. Sounding very much like Pulp circa “Disco 2000”, the keys fuse well with Molko’s delivery, which is more melodic than usual. This is perhaps because the melody so often guided by his voice is given to the keyboard, an excellent maneuver. The refrain, “A heart that hurts is a heart that works / No one can take it away from me,” has a lovely ambiguity to it that makes Placebo fans feel so understood by the band.
“Happy You’re Gone” is a ballad that sounds rather different from Placebo’s previous slow numbers. It has a lovely sparse quality to it. As Molko slowly sings, “Breathe me,” there is actually space for the intimacy of breath, something uncommon on Placebo albums. The chorus is more full-bodied, but that’s earned by the slow-burn of the verses. “Julien” and “Breathe Underwater” are clearly new classic Placebo songs (though “Julien”‘s beats are a little dirtier than one would expect) but still of a new era. Especially played live, these will be energetic classics from Battle for the Sun.
The least-successful tracks here are mediocre, not terrible — “Kitty Litter” sounds like a song that would emerge from a machine that made Placebo songs, and both “Ashtray Heart” and “Devil in the Details” would too, were it not for the final minute’s exquisite backing vocals. “Devil in the Details” is definitely a lyrical nadir for Molko — singing about there being a devil in the details and his plans to dance with said devil is so far beyond a Placebo parody lyric that it barely seems real.
There is nothing on “Battle of the Sun” that would make people wonder whether or not they were really listening to a Placebo song. In a way, that’s refreshing for fans who feared the pressure forced upon the band would turn it into something totally different. But Battle clearly illustrates efforts at sounding new, and undecided listeners may wonder why those efforts bore sweet moments with little resonance, a sugar pill for Placebo’s new era.