Once More With Feeling
n Placebo’s live DVD, Soulmates Never Die, there’s a documentary that follows the band on their last world tour. They’re mobbed in Mexico and play a packed stadium in France, but in the US, they’re shown playing in tiny 600-capacity venues. Brian Molko puts a brave face on it, but you can tell it hurts. Placebo want to be the biggest band in the world. Look at their website, which is full of facts and figures about how many records they’ve sold and which countries they’ve had top ten hits. It’s partly a reaction to the savage piss-taking they’ve had to endure since the British music press decided Brian was like Hitler with more make-up, but you suspect it goes deeper than that: Placebo are misfits, and like teenage boys who don’t fit in, they spent their youths plotting revenge on the world, dreaming of mega-stardom.
Now they find themselves at that famous career crossroads—the greatest hits album—and no one knows if they’ll ever achieve the leap that Depeche Mode made with “Violator” or the Chili Peppers made with “By the Way”. And if they don’t, it would be a crying shame if Placebo felt dissatisfied, because over the last decade they’ve created some fantastic music. From the spiky rush of “36 Degrees” through to the atmospheric new single, “Twenty Years”, Placebo have brought sex, glamour and—above all else—some glorious tunes to the world of alternative rock. I don’t care what Brian is like in real life—anyone who can make a guitar sound like it does in “Without You I’m Nothing” is alright by me.
There have plenty more amazing moments over Placebo’s career: the way Brian sings “Trapped in aaaambuurrr” in “Teenage Angst”; the galloping drums in “Nancy Boy”; the pause in “Special K” before it roars back into life; the whole of “The Bitter End” and “Every You Every Me”. People always go on about Placebo’s perviness, and it’s true that these songs ooze sex, throb with lust and provide more thrills than a rampant rabbit vibrator and a year’s supply of batteries. But there’s a vulnerability and tenderness beneath these songs, hints of self-loathing, that give them an emotional depth. It’s not all about hedonism, even if Brian was only ever faithful to his own pleasure zone.
“Pure Morning” is probably their best-known song, the one about friends with weed and girls with breasts and all the rest. On paper, the lyrics are absurd, but somehow the nursery-rhyme rhythms make them seem almost profound. “The Way of the World” has pretty dire lyrics too, but the tune is so great that it doesn’t matter. I always find myself making excuses for Placebo, because they are flawed, they have made mistakes—but their songwriting always seems to redeem them.
I suppose I should talk about those mistakes. “You Don’t Care About Us” steals from the Cure in the same way the Cure stole from New Order. The version of “Without You I’m Nothing” is the one with David Bowie mumbling over the top—a pointless collaboration if ever there was one. Once More With Feeling contains the obligatory duff extra track too. Every greatest hits album has to contain one weak new song (it’s practically a law) and Placebo’s is called “I Do”. It’s been hyped as their first happy song—perhaps they should go back to being miserable.
This album is also available on DVD, with all of the videos, tracing Brian’s hairstyles through the years. The early videos were a bit samey, with the band playing while various odd types posed in the background. By the time they got to the third album they had some money, and suddenly the vids are glossy and full of special effects, like Brian doing an “Inner Space” and entering someone’s body—er, but not in that way.
Back to the CD (which comes with a totally superfluous remix disc, by the way): Once More With Feeling is a sexy, dark, tuneful, pulsating collection of classic songs by one of the most consistently exciting bands in the world. They deserve to be as massive as they want to be, but who cares if they don’t make it? They should be proud of what they’ve done. This is one of the best greatest hits collections I’ve ever heard.
Reviewed by: Mark Edwards
Reviewed on: 2004-11-03