Placebo are on fire again. More than a quarter-century since vocalist-guitarist Brian Molko and bassist Stefan Olsdal started bashing around with broken guitars and toy instruments in Molko's front room in Deptford, the core duo have dug very deep to spirit up their gobsmackingly urgent eighth long-player.
Called ‘Never Let Me Go', it channels all their skill as songwriters and sound-makers into music that satisfies their near-brutal appetite for self-expression, but also seeks a furious relevance with the early-'20s world we all find ourselves in - crawling out of the pandemic into a landscape of intolerance, division, tech-saturation and imminent eco-catastrophe.
As such, the 2021-model Placebo are the diametric opposite of mid-career complacency, tackling both global issues and their own creative demands head on. The option to sit back and coast on former glories was there on a plate for them when they were last among us circa 2016-18.
A best-of collection entitled ‘A Place For Us To Dream' had propelled them onto a world-wide greatest-hits tour - much of it in arenas and large outdoor venues - where they'd dust off mid-'90s arriviste bangers like Pure Morning, Nancy Boy, and Without You I'm Nothing, the single version of which David Bowie lent his vocals to. The marketing script probably stipulated that playing these songs every night would reconnect them with their most commercial instincts, but the experience quickly became nightmarish for them.
"I thought it all got a little bit too commercial, around that period - the retrospective period," says Brian today, virtually spitting out those words with revulsion. "The whole enterprise was commercial, rather than artistic one, and I guess we reacted against that. I'm like, ‘Fuck this, the next record is gonna be about the pain of the world!' The silent scream that is everywhere - that's what interests me. Not this masturbatory, self-congratulatory two-year thing of, aren't we amazing?"
Adds Stefan, "It was actually like this gruelling five-year tour which went from the last album being released [2013's ‘Loud Like Love'] into the greatest hits. It kind of went on and on, and it was sucking the life out of me. I didn't have a lot of enthusiasm left for the band, because I think I was just drained. The thought of doing it again filled me with dread."
It was Brian's energy - an undimmably contrarian, refusenik spirit - which got Placebo back up and running. Having functioned with only a touring drummer since 2015, it was like the band had come full circle when just Brian and Stef reconvened to commence work on ‘Never Let Me Go' in '18 - only these days a little more upscale, at Stef's home studio in East London.
"In the breaks between tours," Molko recalls, "we'd met over there periodically, and discussed things like, ‘It's just me and you in the studio now - shall we make a record that sounds like nothing we have made before? And programme all the drums ourselves?"
Brian's perennial dissatisfaction with anything he's created before drove him to seek out new ways of working, with an almost Brian Eno-esque, outside-the-box logic.
"I have a major boredom problem," he explains. "If we were going back to the exact same process, I figured that I might get bored kind of quickly. So, I decided to do everything backwards, just to keep the process interesting for me - to approach everything from the opposite angle, to stop myself from getting bored, and repeating myself. I thought, ‘What's the last thing that we come up with artistically when we're making a record? It's the album cover. Okay, let's start with the album cover!'"
Molko had an image in mind, showed it to Olsdal, told him the backstory, and they agreed it should be the album artwork, somewhat unconventionally, before they'd finalised a single note of music. Molko then produced a list of putative song titles he'd written up over the last five years, which included ‘Happy Birthday In The Sky', ‘Beautiful James' and several others from the future tracklisting, and those songs were written to the titles.
Once they'd got the ball rolling "less conceptually and more practically", he says, "that backwards way of working faded away", and all this indestructible duo's abilities, both innate and acquired, at building a colossal, heart-wrenching piece of music kicked in with a vengeance.
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‘Never Let Me Go' opens with a mind-boggling sound, rather like Big Black's Kerosene, where you're instantly wondering, "How did they do that? Is it a guitar...or what?" That intro to Forever Chemicals was apparently the first piece of music completed for the album, and it's not an instrument you'd expect.
"I had this drum machine on my iPad," Molko reveals, "and I programmed a beat in, but then I continued to look through the menu, and you could put this drum machine on a whole set of orchestral instruments, so I put the drumbeat onto a harp, and then I distorted it and put some delay on it - boom! So that is a distorted harp loop that started off as a programmed drumbeat. I guess it was a signpost of how we were going to do this record, moving forward."
Digesting the album's narrative as a whole, it bursts into life with unrestrainable urgency, its first three tracks rocketing along with all the vigour of a teenage punk combo, but with consummate pop mastery on ‘Beautiful James', a stirring anthem for non-heteronormative relationships from a group who first championed such diversity with 1996's Nancy Boy amid Britpop's amorphous lad culture, before today's more open, crusading atmosphere.
The memorable opening line from third song ‘Hugz' - "a hug is just another way of hiding your face" - feels like it may be some tart comment on pandemic manners. It's a crushing statement when any form of embrace has felt so priceless during recent months of enforced solitude, but it was actually written - or rather thieved - by Brian from no lesser source than ‘Doctor Who'.
"Like a lot of my best lines, it's not mine!" laughs the magpie songsmith. "It was when Peter Capaldi was still playing the Doctor, pre-pandemic, and Clara Oswald was saying goodbye and asks for a hug, so he hugged her and said, ‘It's just a way of hiding your face', and I went, ‘Thank you very much!' So it was another one where the inspiration for the song came from that [duly shortened] title."
After the initial fast-paced three-song triple-whammy, ‘Never Let Me Go' opens out through many moods and musical styles, which widen the rubric for what Placebo can be.
"It's a very synthy record," Molko proudly declares. "Towards the end of '19, I set myself a challenge, to try and get a synthesiser on every song on the record. I had the bug, and then Stef got the bug, and our producer Adam Noble got the bug. Now there are four or five on each song, and it's almost as if the distorted guitars and the vintage synthesisers are as important as each other, and there's this push and pull between them. Melodically, a lot of time the guitars are just supporting the lead melody, which is on synthesiser."
Tracks which bear this out include ‘Beautiful James', the fizzing ‘Chemtrails' and the almost Visage-like ‘Sad White Reggae', but Placebo's sound palette also takes in splashes of piano (‘This Is What You Wanted'), orchestration (‘The Prodigal' - says Stefan, "we always loved the string arrangement for ‘Eleanor Rigby', where a simple quartet can be so powerful and rhythmic"), spoken word (‘Went Missing') and, on ‘Surrounded By Spies', a strange collision of rap and soundtrack music, of which Stef observes, "We definitely feel that one breaks the mould a bit for us".
Just musically, the album has a narrative arc that's wide-reaching and intrepid, touching many bases and finally culminating with ‘Fix Yourself', which builds in slow, stately fashion like a lost track off The Cure's ‘Disintegration', yet never quite delivers on its title promise by resolving to a happy ending, instead drifting off inconclusively to a disquieting mantra: "go fix yourself, instead of someone else".
As Molko was saying, it's all about "the pain of the world, the silent scream that is everywhere" ...and the powers-that-be didn't write a happy ending for that movie yet.
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For Brian Molko, "it remains imperative that each listener discovers their own personal story within our songs - I really don't want to tell anyone how to feel". Yet there is a fury at the heart of ‘Never Let Me Go' which, while never explicitly polemical, is palpably sparked by the many lunacies and injustices he says in contemporary life.
Those who interview Molko will inevitably be subject to extraordinarily acutely articulated views on all facets of our daily experience right now, whether it be Instagram's "infinity mirror of narcissism", or the campaign against online intolerance.
One might say that he's an opinionated rock star like they don't make 'em anymore, but like any true artist he considers himself a conduit for what the general public are feeling. In The mid-'90s, back when non-binary icons weren't realistically dreamt of, he spoke for those who felt alienated by blokey Britpop, channelling glam-goth androgyny, grungey sonics and pop savvy for an alternative vision which struck a genuinely international chord. With more than 13 million albums now sold, including five UK Top Ten LP chart entries and comparable global sales for ‘Without You, I'm Nothing' (1998) and 2009's Europe-slaying ‘Battle For The Sun', Placebo have a voice that can be neither ignored nor silenced.
All that thought about the world's follies comes at a price. "I'm as psychologically brutalized by the last few years, as is anybody who has a heart enough to care," says a rueful Molko, going on to explain how he's been suffering prolonged bouts of insomnia, "where I sleep maximum two or three hours a night, for two or three months". The upside, however, is that the sleep deprivation makes him "open to something because of the deliriousness, and melodies just appear in my head from nowhere". The hookline for ‘Beautiful James', for instance, arrived at 5am one morning, which had him scrambling across his East London flat to the piano, with Voice Notes engaged on his smartphone.
And all this BEFORE the Coronavirus cast unprecedented existential dead and uncertainty into everyone's lives. By the time the pandemic hit, ‘Never Let Me Go' was 85% completed. After briefly toying with programming all the beats themselves, Brian and Stef decided to switch operations from Olsdal's flat to RAK Studios near Regent's Park, to record live drums from touring sticksman Matthew Lunn, as well as Pietro Garrone from sometime support act Husky Loops, from Bologna, Italy ("We wanted a very enthusiastic person in the room, and that's exactly who Pietro is").
"We were just finishing up the final drum tracks," Stef remembers, "when a voice on TV that evening in March '20, told everyone lockdown was starting. We were the last people in RAK, going, ‘Er, should we go home then?'"
Placebo's eighth album was on schedule for a summer '20 release, but instead of rushing it out, or even using the protracted downtime to knock a second long-player, they decided to spend further time finessing the one at hand back at Stef's. Brian was unhappy with some of his lyrics and completely rewrote the words for three songs.
"I wanted to capture the confusion of what it's like to be alive today," he reasons, "the feeling of being lost, always walking in a labyrinth, continuously being overwhelmed by information and opinions."
His inestimable skill is to evoke all this without pinpointing or overstating, to imply critique without hectoring. He's particularly proud of the line in ‘Fix Yourself', "I am bored of your Caucasian Jesus" - an artfully sideways rock ‘n' roll alignment, surely, with Black Lives Matter. Elsewhere, the track rails at the barrage of online ads and social-media conversations telling us how to think and how to live.
While Molko himself is loath to be too direct, Olsdal has this to say: "Brian has 300 different highways in his head, all going at a million miles an hour. There's so much in his lyrics this time, taking you to so many different places - some very dark, but there's love and hope in there, too. I see a lot of his truth, and our truth."
When Molko does speak directly, his words hit all the harder. The issue of privacy, and the everyday hijacking thereof in 2020's life, is one very close to home for him, clearly expressed in ‘Surrounded By Spies'.
"I began to ponder the countless ways in which our privacy has been eroded and stolen since the introduction worldwide of CCTV cameras that now employ racist facial recognition technologies; the rise of the internet and the smartphone, which has turned practically every user into a paparazzo and a spectator in their own life, and how we have mostly all offered up personal information to enormous multinationals whose sole intent is to exploit us."
Brian delivers an equally open broadside on the environment crisis, on the scathingly titled, ‘Try Better Next Time' - obviously, there will be no second chances after planetary destruction. "It talks about growing fins, and going back to the water," he says, "which is also a nod to Captain Beefheart's ‘The Spotlight Kid' obviously."
He believes that our reckless attitude towards our own living space is simply an extension of our insubstantial culture. "I wonder how disposable everything is going to become until essentially the next disposable thing is us," he muses. "Is there another species on this planet that deserves an extinction event more the humans? Just look at the way we behave and what we've done to our climate. Shouldn't Mother Nature just wipe us out and give our planet back to the animals?" He smiles.
"I say to my son, I'm a little jealous of you because your generation may get front-row seats to the Apocalypse. You might be able to watch it all burn. It might be the last thing you ever do, but you'll sure go out in a blaze of glory!"
Little wonder Molko suffers all those sleepless nights. ‘Never Let Me Go' is music for the committed and the disenchanted, for insomniacs, activists and trolls to chew over at their leisure. It also takes Placebo to a thrilling new breadth of sound and style - yet another ‘best album they've ever done', in an unstoppable sequence of them. Once you've grabbed hold of it, indeed, you won't want to let it go.