Unlike with so many of their contemporaries, Placebo’s dimming with age has felt like more of a considerable blow. In a way, there’s more to lose from a band at the forefront of the countercultural ‘90s than just less exciting music; at their best, there was an edge and a provocation that, by design, just won’t continue to hit in the same way over time. It’s not Placebo’s fault necessarily, but they’ve definitely slid more deeply into legacy band territory on their last couple of releases, embarking on a tried-and-true cycle of fine-enough music that’s mostly tailored to completionists and to buoy their own longevity. Perhaps that’s why their near-decade absence hasn’t been felt as strongly, now that the edges have been sanded down and they’ve been lapped numerous times in the ranks of alt-rock’s provocateurs. And when an album like Never Let Me Go feels so clearly designed as an earth-shattering return to form, it can make the fact that it just…isn’t sink a bit lower. If nothing else, Placebo continue to play on their own terms, but that clearly amounts to a fair bit less than it once did, on an album that’s never as cutting or incisive as it plans to be. Kudos to them for taking that stance around bigger social issues when they could definitely afford to play it safe—it’s what tends to keep Skunk Anansie afloat the most these days as well—even if the message doesn’t always gel with Placebo’s more abstract writing style, and the whole endeavour can wind up feeling a bit muddled. Even a song like Surrounded By Spies doesn’t possess the degree of focus that it could, for as many pointed remarks and ideas it ultimately encapsulates, and it leads to a rather meandering listen overall, where any firebrand commentary is relegated to odd moments, like Try Better Next Time. It’s a blow marginally softened by Placebo typically being interesting writers in their word choices and imagery crafting; there’s none of the broad-to-the-point-of-pointlessness sloganeering that a band of this vintage would indeed indulge in, and that will at least cut something more prominent from Beautiful James or Twin Demons, in the bigger picture at least.
But across Never Let Me Go, the persistent feeling and mood is of an album that should work much more than it does. The efforts are there to sound more current in how forward-facing the synth tones and post-punk nerviness is, even if the former can grate more than enhance when it’s slathered on top of everything else, and the latter is cast in a way that doesn’t make for much instrumental growth or significant momentum. Across multiple songs, there’s an odd immovability in some of these compositions, as the likes of Hugz or Went Missing have such a noticeable lack of dynamism to them. It definitely makes the album feel longer as a result, particularly in its louder moments when guitars and bass will pile up and get walled in by each other, and significant deaden any sort of groove or considerable forward motion. And yet, when songs like Try Better Next Time and Sad White Reggae seem to rectify all of those issues, it reveals how overstuffed Never Let Me Go can feel in places for seemingly no other reason than to sound big. And to be clear, that isn’t something that Placebo need to do, given that their best characteristics can do that far them with greatly diminished fallout. Brian Molko’s defiant, nasal voice continues to be an acquired taste, but the fact that he sounds like absolutely no one else and owns it continues to work for them; likewise, when they get out of their own way, it gives a more varied and layered production style a moment to shine, where they’ll deviate notably from other early-wave Britrock in terms of doing more interesting work with what they have. But that isn’t the vibe that Never Let Me Go gives off a lot of the time; more often, it reads like Placebo trying to curb the criticism of their later material by trying to regrow some of that edge and power, only for it to feel nowhere near as natural as it once did. There’s definitely a barrier up in front of this album that stops it from appealing as it could, or as the band previously did, and it kind of goes without saying that that doesn’t play out nearly as well.
For fans of: Editors, Garbage, White Lies
‘Never Let Me Go’ by Placebo is released on 25th March on SO Recordings.
Words by Luke Nuttall