Gareth David is lyricist and singer in the band Los Campesinos! He was nominated for Sexiest Vegetarian at the 2009 PETA Awards 2009 and Hottest Male at the 2012 NME awards. He didn’t win either. The most recent Los Campesinos! album NO BLUES is out now via Wichita Recordings.
“My computer thinks I’m gay/I threw that piece of junk away” went the opening lines of “Too Many Friends,” the first track to be released from the new Placebo record, Loud Like Love. And immediately the internet broke into laughter, before frontman Brian Molko had even had the chance to complete his rhyme scheme and reveal that all this happened, you’ll never guess… “on the Champs-Elysées”. Placebo has always been easy to laugh at, but who are we really to mock Molko’s astute comments on the heteronormative assertions of targeted marketing? Huh?
My relationship with Placebo is long-lasting. Sleeping with Ghosts is the first album I ever counted down to the release day of, leaving school in my lunch break to go to my local supermarket to purchase it. I spent a lot of sixth form wearing a Placebo t-shirt emblazoned with what I thought at the time was a “paint splash” design, though now, in my acquired wisdom, I know this to have been a semen splatter. The song “36 Degrees” lists a string of numbers that were an anagram of my home telephone number; I thought this to be fantastic synergy between me and my favourite band, and “Spite & Malice,” from 2001’s Black Market Music, was the first time I heard rap music. I liked it. Placebo were my first live rock concert — I was 17 — and even though I was suffering from severe diarrhoea that evening and subsequently had to sit in the stalls (sometimes stage front, more often bathroom) rather than hook myself onto the barrier with the cyberpunks, my enjoyment could not be dampened. All this is to say that it’s going to take a lot more than a clumsy couplet about how Molko’s through with social media, or in fact the entirety of 2009’s balls-out (in the conventional rock sense, rather than a much preferred voyeuristic one) Battle for the Sun to turn me off the band.
And if the opening of “Too Many Friends” drew titters, then by the time “Rob the Bank” rolls around and Molko orders the listener to “pick your nose… paint a picture of a swastika,” the audience will have been brought to their knees with guffaws. But to mock Molko’s lyrical risk-taking is to miss the point, as it’s when he slips into the banal and safe that the album shows up the same weaknesses that seem always to have plagued Placebo. See, the one thing I personally value in lyrics above anything else — hell, even above the lyrics actually being “good” — is honesty and conviction. “Gay”/”away/”Elysees” may be absurd, but when we get to the second verse and pick up the same melody and rhyme structure, what we’re given is “If I could give it all away/would it come back to me one day?/Like a needle in the hay.” This doesn’t mean anything. This is Molko with few ideas of how to fill out a whole song, let alone a whole album, and so he resorts to simple rhymes throwing out meaningless platitudes, and this is a lot less easy to forgive. A needle in the hay won’t come back to you one day. You may rummage through bales attempting to find it, you may be successful, but it won’t be the needle returning.
And needle is something missing from this album altogether. There’s no provocation anymore. There’s not even as much anger as you’d expect from a man who’s recently been dethroned from his position as World’s Most Famous Luxembourger by a cyclist. You’d be angry, wouldn’t you? There are good songs on this record, for sure. The title track comes fast out of the traps and is among the most euphoric songs Placebo have written to date. Album closer “Bosco,” a paean to the androgynous ’70s Irish kids’ TV character, does as all Album Closers should, with its long, genuinely emotional buildup carrying on a little longer than necessary. Swelling strings are brought to the fore as Brian repeats the phrase “how I suck you dry” fourteen times at the diminutive redhead puppet, with the same knowing wink that your uncle would.
Molko claims the songs on Loud Like Love are the most confessional he’s ever written. If that’s true, it’s just a shame that such transparency has come to him as a 40-year-old single father railing against Spotify rather than when he speedballed his way around the world leaving a self-described “trail of blood and spunk” behind him. Because there was a time when Placebo were genuinely exciting and a refreshing alternative to the detritus of Britpop, notable for more than just the fact that they’re the only good band ever to have a really tall member.
But for all these criticisms I’ve spitefully laid down, for all the clear downfalls of this record, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a Placebo album, and it’s faithful to that, imbued with the same teenage nostalgia as ever. Fifteen years and seven albums later, Placebo are still here, and they’ll be selling out shows in landlocked European countries as surely as teenage goths will assemble at the cenotaph of every market town in the UK this Saturday morning.