I had no idea what to expect going into this one, because I haven't heard the earlier eight Placebo albums, but it wasn't this. Maybe I was imagining them to be a British alternative rock band like a Coldplay or a Radiohead, which isn't the case, though there are commonalities. Apparently, their primary influences in the early days were Sonic Youth and Depeche Mode, which makes sense. The sound they conjure up is punky but rarely anarchic and grounded in electronica with idiosyncratic pop vocals that are nasal but very clear.
And so I shouldn't be surprised that it all kicks off with jagged electronica and punky riffs. It's also a little progressive, though it's clearly alternative rock over prog rock. It's very commercial, even in the heavier sections, but then Pink Floyd got very commercial at points; there's definitely some of that approach here. There's David Bowie too, because the vocals are always high in the mix and they drive everything, so there's always a pop side in play even if the guitars are raging.
I enjoyed this and more than I expected to, but wonder how much is substantial enough to keep me coming back. I appreciated how unique Brian Molko's vocals are. After just one album, I know that I'd recognise his delivery on any song he sings that shows up in a dramatic scene on a TV show. It's also surprisingly versatile, because it changes whenever he gets sarcastic or happy, developing an interesting Johnny Rotten snarl on Hugz; a sardonic John McCrea edge on Try Better Next Time or Went Missing; and an Iggy Pop tinge whenever he goes for repetition for effect, as on Surrounded by Spies.
Talking of Try Better Next Time, it's the most overt standout here, because there's a general tone of pessimism riddled through the album, as if everything's going wrong and there's no longer any way for us to reverse that—I took the cover art to be an environmental message, with its decaying pixels and clash between foreground and background—and that mindset is found everywhere except in Try Better Next Time, which is perky, like Cake covering an uncharacteristically upbeat REM song. Sad White Reggae is a darker, heavier take on the same approach, but it ditches the perkiness.
Even though the early songs aren't perky, they're still pop songs and that means that they have to reach out to grab us. Whether it's the snarly punk of Hugz or the sad sarcasm of Happy Birthday in the Sky, even the orchestral swells of The Prodigal, these are songs meant to be heard. However, I found that, as the album runs on, the songs get more and more introspective, especially once the first ten are done and we're into the last three. These feel more like songs meant to be written, to be played, regardless of audience, like there's power simply in them being.
I wonder if that's a fundamental dichotomy that drives Placebo. Sure, they play a poppy flavour of rock music that's not a million miles from what I expected, even if their starting point isn't close to what I thought it was, but they clearly have things to say, not just lyrically but musically. The more I listened to this album, the more emerged from it. Sure, Try Better Next Time stood out on the first time through, because it's a standout sort of song in pretty much any company, but Went Missing, which is entirely different in every way except for its Cake-like vocal approach, is the one that will absolutely not leave me alone. It's far more subtle but it does a huge amount in five minutes. This one would be notable on a prog rock album.
Clearly, I should take a listen to how Placebo got to this point, while acknowledging the six years in between this and its predecessor, Life's What You Make It. I have a healthy level of distrust of any band that plays arenas but still gets tagged as "alternative" because they're clearly no longer an alternative any more; they're a new form of mainstream. I can see why a band who can write songs like Try Better Next Time can draw that sort of audience, but I particularly appreciate how they're going to hear something subtly subversive like Went Missing too.