Placebo band 2022
Photo: Courtesy of Rise Records

Alt Rockers Placebo Attempt a Comeback with ‘Never Let Me Go’

Don’t call it a comeback: Placebo’s first new album in a decade, Never Let Me Go, shows their finest years are still behind them.

Never Let Me Go
Rise Records / BMG
25 March 2022

Never Let Me Go is Placebo‘s first studio album in a decade, but it is hard to imagine the interval was utterly incidental. Their last album, Loud Like Love (2013), was poorly received by critics and fans. Capping a long stretch of creative and commercial stasis following the band’s turn-of-the-millennium pinnacle, it felt like a natural endpoint. Since then, Placebo have followed a tried-and-true rock ‘n’ roll revival blueprint. In 2016 they marked their 20th anniversary with an expansive greatest hits album and tour. Then they began working on what became Never Let Me Go.

By virtue of the timeline alone, Never Let Me Go falls into the category of a “comeback album”. Surely, with the world as chaotic, dysfunctional, and dystopic as ever, the time would seem right for a fiery new statement of purpose from a group that have always seen the world as chaotic, dysfunctional, and dystopic—reveled in it, even.  Unfortunately, though, Never Let Me Go continues the trend of generally weak material and does very little to give the impression it exits for anyone other than the fans who have stuck by Placebo this far.

With the departure of drummer Steve Forrest, Placebo are, for the first time, officially down to the core duo of Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal. Never Let Me Go sounds as if Molko and Olsdal tried to use the reconfiguring as an opportunity both to re-emphasize their basic strengths and stretch beyond them. But they aren’t quite able to pull it off.

The appeal of Placebo was never artistic range or musical innovation. Rather, their unique ability was taking the gloriously trashy, hedonistic, tune-driven ethos of glam rock and adding a layer of postmodern angst and regret while maintaining what made the music fun in the first place and delivering the tunes. Molko’s indulgently debauched lyrics and somewhat stiff, helium-filled voice were never going to conquer the world, but he and his bandmates were good for more than a few jolting, three-minute thrills, and some pretty good albums, too.

Never Let Me Go does find some of the old noise and volume. Starting with the clanging intro and midtempo crunch of opener “Forever Chemicals”, it has industrial-influenced boldness and louder guitars that will inevitably lead to “return to form” proclamations. It’s true that the likes of “Hugz” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) and “Twin Demons” up the tempo and the buzzing power-chord factor. But they fail to convey a true sense of energy, sounding more like a band that can’t help doing what it has always done.

Or can they help it? A few tracks try some relatively new approaches, like featuring soaring, triumphant strings on the anthem “The Prodigal”. But this, combined with clichéd lyrics like, “This wounded world will be as one”, only makes Placebo come across like Coldplay circa 2008. Molko and Olsdal have said that they caught the vintage synth bug with Never Let Me Go. For them, this translates into little more than laced-in squirts and squiggles, making an underwhelming, two-chord single like “Beautiful James” sound plain silly.  Ironically, when Molko sings “Bring me back to life” on that track, he does so, sounding bored and tired. “Fix Yourself” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) uses a bossa nova rhythm. This may be a first for Placebo, but it’s for no good reason. Otherwise, the track is familiar goth drudgery.

If Never Let Me Go at least finds a musical footing, what really dooms it is the songwriting—or lack thereof. Molko uses the same stilted, broken phrasing in too many songs as if he is pausing mid-verse to try and think up a vocal hook. Alas, he often ends up just settling on a phrase such as “Don’t wanna / Don’t think so” or “Collapse into never” and repeating it over and over. It’s a shame because there are a couple of bright spots.

The single “Try Better Next Time” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) really is the best thing they’ve done in ages. Streamlined and with a memorable chorus, it works up some of the ol’ “the world is burning and I feel fine” magic. “Chemtrails”, one of several songs based on a theme of escape, is pretty and sad and compassionate. When “Surrounded By Spies” breaks into a drum’n’bass rhythm, it is a rare musical step forward, if not exactly risky.

It is likely hardcore Placebo fans will enjoy Never Let Me Go because it reminds them of what they love about the band. That is a mixed blessing because reminders are rarely as good as the real thing.

RATING 4 / 10