Among the Britpop and techno of the mid-’90s UK music scene, Placebo stuck out like a sore thumb. Or, more appropriately, a bruised upper lip.
The elfin, androgynous bandleader Brian Molko flaunted his hedonistic obsessions with drugs, sex, and…well, more drugs and more sex. Critics suggested a one-dimensional gimmick at work. Maybe, but the key was in the trio’s sharp, streamlined, and catchy tunes. Beneath the mascara and kink was a buzzing, glammy alt-rock motor.
The result was a dedicated international audience and an improbably long run of hit singles and albums. A listen to 2004 compilation Once More With Feeling: Singles 1996-2004 was a consistently thrilling ride through some of the era’s most sturdy guitar-driven material. Rather than the British Invasion icons whom contemporaries like Blur and Oasis favored, Placebo looked to Bolan, Bowie, and the no-wave and goth movements of the early 1980s, with some Sonic Youth-style distortion for good measure. They stood out.
Each of Placebo’s run of albums from their 1996 debut to Sleeping With Ghosts (2003) was worth hearing on its own. Granted, an hour’s worth of Molko’s nonstop naughtiness, delivered in his distinctively high-pitched, nasal whine, was not for everyone. But at the very least Placebo were established as a cracking singles band.
Now Placebo, essentially Molko and multi-instrumentalist Stefan Olsdal after a succession of drummers, are celebrating 20 years in the business. It’s quite an achievement for any band, and especially for one that was often pegged as yet another British flavor-of-the-year. Much of the band’s longevity is due to the momentum generated by that impressive decade. So where does that leave A Place for Us to Dream, the new two-disc, 36-track, career-spanning compendium?
On the plus side, everything from Once More With Feeling is here, save one song. That means whip-smart rockers like “Nancy Boy”, “Pure Morning”, and “Taste in Men”. When Molko focused on heartbreak rather than debauchery, the results could be pretty and even affecting, as in “Without You I’m Nothing”, “You Don’t Care About Us”, and the ethereal “Special Needs”. The progression was subtle, but a degree of sophistication and even nuance was evident.
More problematic for A Place for Us to Dream, and maybe Placebo in general, is the band’s second decade. The material from Meds, (2006) especially power ballad “Because I Want You” and motoric “Infra Red”, is strong, but it also suggests the Placebo formula was nearing the point of diminishing returns. A course change was necessary.
Molko responded by cleaning up his lifestyle and re-positioning Placebo as more of a Positive Force in the universe. In other words, they have become a better-adjusted, less-dynamic, and certainly less-interesting alternative rock band. The shift in attitude would not be such a big deal were it not accompanied by a shift in Molko’s songwriting. The more his worldview has brightened or expanded, the more his music has dulled.
That’s not to say Placebo’s post-2006 output has all been bad. It has just been extremely hit-and-miss, even on a singles compilation such as this. Self-empowerment anthems “Bright Lights” and “Loud Like Love” are winning, “For What It’s Worth” chugs along reliably, and “A Million Little Pieces” even revisits some of the ol’ heartbreak. But none of these rise above being merely likeable or serviceable. You woudn’t trade any of them for much of anything from the band’s first ten years.
More troublingly, the lack of musical bite brings Molko’s shortcomings as a singer, oft-repeated phrasings, and shaky lyrics to the fore. “Too Many Friends” is a worthy attempt at topicality, Molko lamenting a social media society full of “Too many people / That I’ll never meet / And I’ll never be there for”. Before he can get that far, though, he’s undone by the horrid couplet, “My computer thinks I’m gay / I threw that piece of junk away.” Whatever the intended message, it lands with an artless thud.
A Place for Us to Dream tries to disguise the obvious quality disparity by going with a non-chronological running order and mixing in a few b-sides. Guest appearances by Bowie himself, Alison Mosshart, and Michael Stipe come across as little more than musical name-dropping.
Both A Place for Us to Dream and the accompanying Life’s What You Make It odds ‘n’ ends EP feature the new single “Jesus’ Son”, an “I’m OK, you’re OK” anthem that is fine but fails to move the needle in any direction. The rest of the EP is for collectors only. And A Place for Us to Dream itself? It is a fine place to catch up with Placebo, but also a clear case of subtraction by addition.