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.