The term ‘alternative’ has long been a rather nebulous term in a musical context. What starts as counterculture is frequently hijacked by corporate interests and popularized to the point of redundancy; In some cases, an entire movement is manufactured and pushed as a legitimate subculture, only to die out, and hear it’s defining songs predicatably end up on car commercials five years later.
Perhaps alternative is best defined then as a mindset, rather than by sonic parameters or label affiliations. The discipline to stay the course and not concede to trends, but with flexibility to take risks and defy convention (even your own), when necessary. To resist the temptations of being a proverbial movie star in favour of being the perennial character actor, likely guaranteeing a longer and more artistically rewarding career.
Placebo have long been that outfit – revered and celebrated across Europe and Asia, they still fly somewhat under the radar in the hype driven North American market, despite carving out one of the more consistent and respectable runs in alt rock history. From the frenetic, youthful, drug fuelled anthems of the 90’s to their deep contemplations of sobriety and aging in the 2000’s, they have stayed true to form and self for close to 30 years, while so many contemporaries have lost their way.
With Never Let Me Go, their first LP in nine years, they return in the boldest fashion. Both supremely confident and uncomfortably raw, there is a diversity and maturity to this work that only comes with decades of survival in an unforgiving world, and the lessons learned therein. Nobody is let off the hook, least of all the self, and indeed this is an album borne of a world of great questioning, with plenty of difficult answers in tow. There is accusation, but also forgiveness – as such, Placebo have long straddled the divides in the human condition in a way few artists ever manage.
Unflinching vulnerability, existential angst, deep introspection, memorable songs – all the usual hallmarks are there, but what sets this record apart is an occasional sense of desperation, one quite uncommon for an act so established. At times it sounds like they are playing for their careers, backed into a corner and fighting like never before. It’s a record befitting this era of reckoning, laden with the paranoia and questioning of what has been a grim decade thus far. Tracks like ‘Surrounded By Spies’ capture a darkness not seen from them since the 90’s, if ever, while ‘Happy Birthday In The Sky’ rends the heart in a manner rarely done in this jaded age.
It’s not all gloom and despair though, with moments of euphoric levity like ‘The Prodigal’, or the whimsical romanticism of ‘Beautiful James’. It’s a broad, comprehensive outing, but also their most dynamic, arguably even their best. It all amounts to a powerful, thoughtful display of over a quarter century of artistic exploration, and ruthless self-examination.
Perhaps to be truly alternative is to embrace a sense of timelessness, but to acknowledge the changing of the times – a paradox in which one stands their ground even as it shifts. Trends come and go, subcultures will be watered down and sold out (often before purifying and returning to their roots), but brilliant songcraft stands the test of time.
True greatness is often ahead of it’s time as it is, and often it’s seemed like Placebo were a tad too sophisticated for the eras they’ve existed in, despite often defining the spirits of those eras almost perfectly. To remain true to oneself but allow that self to evolve is often the hardest thing, and as such, Placebo have aged more wisely and gracefully than most.
Showing fragililty while maintaining one’s composure is a delicate balance. It’s a feat rarely achieved in a musical epoch dominated by god complex and victim complex in equal measure. To see an act of such stature achieve and maintain that juxtaposition so well for so long is one thing, but for them to produce what may be their career defining work so deep into their tenure is remarkable.
One does not have to sacrifice nuance and intellect to create art that is approachable, or music that is accessible. Few musicians prove that to the extent that Placebo have.