Placebo are a cheesy British goth or glam trio of no likely historical consequence who will happily prove whatever you want them to prove. Those who believe the world will end if musicians don’t make sounds unlike any previously known to humankind can condemn Brian Molko’s catchy ditties for alienated young people as calculated trivialities. Never that kind of taskmaster myself, I conceive the same songs rather differently. Yes, Virginia, good music happens all over the place—including, it’s a mild shock to discover, the recorded works of a cheesy Brit goth or glam trio.
Really, these fellows are not to my taste. Scribes compare them to many bands primarily to avoid the screamingly obvious: not early supporter David Bowie, without whom no consideration of Placebo is complete, but the Cure. They’re very ’80s, Placebo. Brian Molko is a nasal whiner whose angst admits more “decadence” and gay signifiers than Robert Smith ever deemed judicious, but Molko’s androgynous stance is as familiar as his guitar band’s synthy ambience and go-for-the-throat choruses. The main reason they’ve never broken the bank in the U.K. or, duh, the U.S. is that they timed it wrong. They had their hits, and their goth or glam got them into The Velvet Goldmine. But they were doomed to marginality by the titanic battles between Blurandoasis and Radiohead. So despite their self-destructive ways—in 1997 Molko famously claimed they “left a trail of blood and spunk” wherever they toured—they slogged it. Placebo are kings of the secondary markets. This London-based unit played Croatia and returned to Australia as often as the Go-Betweens; vaulting customs hurdles, they wowed Russia just by getting in.
But in America—where their albums, million-sellers worldwide, have never cracked the Billboard 200, and their cult specializes in the déclassé mopers alt flame-keepers disdain—they’re, as Suede once put it, lost in the lonely crowd. Only after overlooking two CDs, sidestepping closure on two others, and delaying judgment on the smartly titled 2005 best-of Once More With Feeling did I stick on the new Meds and decide I had some catching up to do. What got my attention was “Meds” itself: Molko’s nicely urgent if generically mopey “I was confused by the powers that be” rammed home by the chorus: “Baby, did you forget to take your meds?/Baby, did you forget to take your meds?” For a guy known to argue that any young songwriter who ignores “drug culture” is an “artistic ostrich,” this question is a cheeky maturity move—though no one had the brains to put the question into a song, by now it’s been asked millions of times in hundreds of ways, encapsulating a youth drug culture turned adult. For a drag queen of convenience to cede that key line to lady Kill Amelia Mosshart is a subtle way to say that, actually, you have a permanent girlfriend and a baby at home. And for the same guy to seize and reiterate said line 10 times as the altered tunings swell around him is a grand way to make clear that you’re married to your musical formula for life.
Molko—the Scottish-identified son of an American banker and a religious Scottish mother who likes to say he grew up in Lebanon, Liberia, and Luxembourg—is the lyricist, the frontman, the pull quote supplier. But the formula belongs to the band. Guitarist Molko dabbles elsewhere, but like so many bassists, tall, gay Swede Stefan Olsdal is the quasi-virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, and both of them need the adaptable, unexceptionably hard-driving drums of sole total straight and sole total Brit Steve Hewett. Once More With Feeling sells variety. Molko has a femme voice and a wanker voice; “Nancy Boy” showed up on an electronica comp, while “Bruise Pristine,” which follows, unleashes Hewett’s rock chops; many songs—including the Duran Duran–meets-Pavement “Slave to the Wage,” which explains why they’d rather play Croatia, and the non-album bonus “I Do,” where Molko courts a potential babymama with a fond “I wanna wear my face like you/Shiseido, MAC, and Maybelline”—are melodic, hitbound pop-rock. But the knockouts, scattered through their career, have wham-bam choruses: “Nancy Boy,” “Taste in Men,” “Special K,” “Pure Morning,” “English Summer Rain.” If this trick was as easy as those who consider themselves above it believe, Placebo would do it every time.
Proof of the band’s focus after 10 years of slogging is how often Meds hits that particular patch of pay dirt. In a skippable “Special Edition” DVD, Molko brags about the new songs’ directness, but, typically, leaves his exact meaning unclear. The choruses are certainly direct. But if he’s talking lyrics, well, when it comes to words he’s a great interview. Meds deploys enough memorable lines, but aside from one neat summary of stoned youthcult politics—”Let’s follow the cops back home/And rob their houses”—these fall into two classes. There are the melodically fortified clichés like “It’s in the water baby” and “Because I want you too,” and the vague phrases that accrue weight through repetition like “Please don’t drive me blind” and “I’m coming up on infrared.” The hooks are more than the sum of their verbal content first because they’re couched in a guitar language that recapitulates the krazee alt-rock tunings-cum-sound-effects adored by Sonic Youth fan Molko. And their interest in the interpersonal one-on-one, while standard in pop, completes a thematic shift for these onetime spunkateers. The best-of is where to begin, and you could try 2000’s Black Market Music. But Meds is easily their most effective album-as-album.
One can imagine “Meds” as a left-field radio anthem, but for Placebo as for so many others, maturity probably comes a little late. Their American cult should grow, but not beyond cult size. One reason Placebo stuck in the back of my mind was the intensity mature observers reported in their live shows, and on their video collection—every single from the best-of, with imagery long on garish parties and medically unsound quantities of eye makeup—the few concert clips suggest ecstatic weirdo conventions in which all of Molko’s drag and expressions of anomie are liberating truths. I’ve always liked déclassé mopers in principle while keeping my distance from their self-absorbed tastes in music. It’s gratifying to have a band to share with them.