PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Placebo: Sleeping With Ghosts

David Antrobus


Sleeping With Ghosts

Label: Elevator
US Release Date: 2003-04-01
UK Release Date: 2003-03-24

A distinct and puzzling mean-spiritedness toward pan-cultural (Scottish-American, English, Swedish) poster boys Placebo has been emanating from some critical quarters lately, most of it directed at singer/guitarist Brian Molko. Recent unnecessary references to both Molko's receding hairline and lack of intelligence have been as inexplicably vindictive as they are embarrassing. It's not as if Placebo are particularly offensive. For the best part of a decade, they have carved out a more than adequate (if slightly underachieving) niche purveying a kind of glam-punk-pop tinged with hints of prog, and once you get past Molko's twangy gender-neutral stridency, there's a fair amount to like and admire.

First off, Placebo have remained true to their idiosyncratic Frankenstein visions, even partially succeeding at stitching Rush, Sonic Youth, and Smashing Pumpkins together. They have survived the lethally fickle attentions of that slavering hype-monster, the UK music press. Equally, they have shrugged off a head-scratchingly lukewarm stateside reception. And along the way, they have managed to leave in their highly theatrical wake some fiercely melodic, and ferally brash sounds.

That said, Sleeping With Ghosts, while decent enough, is not their best album. It tends to dilute the very elements that make the band unique. The moody lust, careless mongrel aesthetic and high camp perversion of previous efforts is all still here, just not as . . . reveled in, somehow. The old peaks and valleys have been somewhat smoothed by time, and the tense rock/pop dialogue that particularly informed 1998's brilliant Without You I'm Nothing, is looser and less immediate.

Given the fact that words have never been a Placebo strong point, and that some listeners can't get past Molko's voice, it's perhaps appropriate that Ghosts opens with an instrumental. With its big sound and its very title, "Bulletproof Cupid" comes off like an outtake from another obvious reference point, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Yeah, it's tumultuous and rock-raucous and urgent and everything (they've been listening to QOTSA, perhaps?), but it's also oddly free of even the faux passion that sometimes dripped from their earlier releases (try "Bruise Pristine" from their 1996 debut).

With so many people being mean about them, it's tempting to be contrary and overstate the good stuff here in tribute to the band's fiercely individualistic nature. And good stuff there most certainly is. Steve Hewitt's vigorous beats experiment admirably on the otherwise fairly ordinary "English Summer Rain" shoring up a flat effects-laden vocal. "This Picture" is a grower, retaining at least a measure of former pop-rock glories like "Pure Morning", increasingly brimming with its hybrid rock/electronic mix as it seemingly gains confidence. The title track, with its strummed acoustic guitar and lyrical banalities ("Soulmate dry your eyes / 'Cause soulmates never die"), lowers the bar (not to mention the energy levels), but "The Bitter End" arrives just in time to regain our attention. A chord storm of sub-epic proportions, this decadent-weary yet driving slab of pure mourning is a welcome moment, with hints of genuine chill and ache in Molko's vocals as he spits out references to "broken bones" and "killing times" at the (presumably fast approaching) bitter end of a relationship.

The middle third of Ghosts is somewhat insubstantial (sorry). "Something Rotten" attempts to straddle a near trip-hop groove, and if it just teeters and falls, at least it demonstrates the band's willingness to move beyond familiar comfort levels. "Plasticine" is cookie-cutter pop-rock, pretty (vacant), but as inorganic as the esteem-challenged plastic surgery it decries. Molko's voice does settle with surprising substance into the bittersweet "Special Needs", a decent song with a firm grip on melody, if a slightly less firm grip on lyrics (although "Six months off for bad behaviour" is actually quite funny in context). The neo-Gothic "I'll Be Yours" performs similar rhythmic experiments as "English Summer Rain", but it's only when "Second Sight" kicks in that the album really picks up from where "The Bitter End" left off. Molko's voice is reverb- and effects-drenched on the driving chorus, Stefan Olsdal's bass is sinuous as young willow wood, and Hewitt's drums pound with a blue-collar lack of ostentation, but however predictable (and it is), the song is pure Placebo.

Two more songs complete this strong closing trio. "Protect Me from What I Want", with its Morrissey-esque lyrics ("It's the disease that we crave / Alone at the end of the rave") and urgently unblinking staredown of mortality and loneliness, is compellingly bleak right up to its inexplicably abrupt ending. Molko's guitar hissy-fit, squealing like an alley cat well back in the mix (behind all the warm layers of electric piano and swooning synth), is oddly, effectively appropriate here. And finally, "Centrefolds" opens with a piano figure that's delicate as a spring shower, behind subtle vocals that manage to express both regret and a kind of nasty glee (he is basically exhorting an aging lover to return to him, now that the "Centerfolds have long since waved their last good-byes"). Judicious use of tubular bells and a nuanced distorted guitar fadeout lend a suitable trash/tragic ambience to this closing ballad.

Everyone's ears perked when Interpol raided the '80s post-punk vault last year, which is odd when you consider that Placebo have been doing pretty much the same thing since the mid-'90s. Perhaps, like a bereaved spouse re-marrying within mere months, they planned their retro-plundering too etiquette-spurningly soon for some tastes. But that singular era of bleak elegiac moodscapes and impassioned quasi-ironic tensile beauty (think Cure, Psychedelic Furs, New Order) has always been a launching pad for the band, from which they went on to apply further bruise-black glam stylings and their own bratty gender-identity playfulness. They may not have always gotten this marriage of influence, imagery and originality right -- on Sleeping with Ghosts, they get it more than half right, at least -- but surely it would be churlish to berate them for it now. Especially since, on its own terms at least, Ghosts delivers enough of an exhilarating and experimental chill to merit frequent spins -- (alleged) male pattern baldness and occasional) sub-Chomskyan social commentary notwithstanding.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.