Placebo have never been a critic’s band. An outsider experience, being shunned by the cognoscenti probably suited them – it certainly hasn’t harmed them, building a two-decade catalogue of goth-tinged, eyeliner-strewn anthems that seem to speak directly to their dedicated, explicitly loyal fanbase.
2013’s ‘Loud Like Love’ was followed by an enormous world tour, before Placebo found themselves grounded once more. Largely conceptualised, written, and recorded in London, ‘Never Let Me Go’ is both a return to their roots, and an attempt to deconstruct them; at times it feels like a crucial act of fan service, yet at others a wilful dismissal of the past. A dichotomous, contradictory experience, it offers further sign that one of British rock’s most reliably contrarian groups aren’t about to stop cutting against the grain.
The record opens with a flurry of tracks that present Placebo at their most distilled. ‘Forever Chemicals’ is a slice of industrial-laden rock framed by Brian Molko’s undeniable pop nous and a lingering sense of hedonistic darkness. ‘Beautiful James’ is an injection of synth-enabled light, a kind of New Romantic inspired intake of breath after the intense opener. ‘Hugz’ meanwhile manages to squeeze in an obscure Dr Who reference amid its bass-led chug, with Stefan Olsdale’s physicality of sound coming to the fore.
Finding the balancing act between beauty and venom, ‘Never Let Me Go’ refuses to be cowed by the band’s discography. Something like ‘Surrounded By Spies’ for instance retains a playful sense of experimentation, yet finds Brian Molko warning that “the search for meaning is killing me…”
The yearning for fresh ground doesn’t always appeal, however. ‘Sad White Reggae’ is as syncopated as its title suggest, a curiously displeasing sonic brew that melds together Peter Tosh and Visage. Equally, at 13 tracks there is perhaps a little weight that could be shed – at times, ‘Never Let Me Go’ can feel a little indulgent, lacking a certain concise nature, with ‘This Is What You Wanted’ sounding like a flat cousin of Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’.
That said, when it hits ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a reminder of how thrilling, and genuinely intoxicating Placebo can be. ‘Twin Demons’ and ‘Went Missing’ are latter album highlights, while the lush, open digitalism of finale ‘Fix Yourself’ has all the accuracy and finesse a band in their third decade should have. A record that continually kicks against the pricks, ‘Never Let Me Go’ proves that Placebo remain – infuriatingly for some – a group who are impossible to write off.
Words: Robin Murray
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