Why Never Let Me Go is Placebo’s best album in over a decade

Placebo is my favourite band. Their last album was released almost a decade ago, back when I didn’t even know that they existed. In the last two years and throughout lockdown, I have become acquainted with their music. Well, more than acquainted; their faces quickly adorned my walls, and their previous output now sleeps on my shelves. I wasn’t really sure if their space in my record collection would gain a new member. Yet here we are, and I am pleasantly surprised.

Placebo’s music was not love at first listen for me. Nothing really affected me in the way that I wanted it to. But that was it, I did want it to. I wanted it to grow on me because this band was unlike anything that I had ever heard before, or since. In the nineties, they screeched, like someone had pressed a Hitachi wand against some guitar strings. They sang about sex and drugs - Garden variety of rock topics. But their line-up was far from ordinary. An androgynous nymph, a Swedish gentle giant and a lad from Manchester (since departed) walk onto a stage to suspicious and perhaps delighted stares when it is revealed that the nymph’s name is Brian. This melting pot birthed a kaleidoscopic lens. Garden variety became something quite punk again.

The angelic trio way back when

In the noughties, the trio achieved international fame, each record building on what the last had left behind. By 2006, they had reached almost perfection with the release of Meds. Placebo had always looked at life through the smoke of a cigarette, and by the release of this fifth album, the kaleidoscope had become fogged. By the end of 2007, the old lens had cracked.

The band returned with a line-up change - and with it, came a shift in sound. Since then, they have produced two albums, 2009’s Battle For The Sun and 2013’s Loud Like Love. Add an extensive tour to mark 20 years since their debut along with Covid-19 into the mix, and an eighth album didn’t seem likely. Of course, Placebo are not as they once were, and this album feels like a culmination of almost 30 years of frenetic creativity.

Never Let Me Go was released in March this year. The now duo of Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal is something of a modern-day Sparks. They are the odd couple who have stood the test of time at varying heights. The prelude for this album was in the shape of four singles, only one of which really struck me. ‘Happy Birthday in The Sky’ took refuge in the shade of the band’s fifth album. With a haunting message and equally haunting sound, the single gave me hope for what this new outing might feature.

The album opens with ‘Forever Chemicals’ - a track that sounds like part of it was recorded within the company of heavy machinery. This industrial sound is our curtain opener, and I was disappointed that it didn’t continue into the second act. The album’s first act and midsection are largely synth-driven, with ‘Surrounded by Spies’ and the punchy ‘Twin Demons‘ being highlights. For me, ‘Twin Demons’ is a perfect example of Placebo’s music. Initially, I disliked the track, but with a few more listens, I slowly but surely fell in love.

The last act of Never Let Me Go is where the album really finds its feet. These four tracks have a weighted feel – we’ve had our fun, and now we are wading into the water. The descent is marked by ‘Chemtrails’, a poignant track about wanting to escape one’s own life for another. ‘Chemtrails’ embodies a theme that is quite prevalent in the album: a lack of connection with yourself and others. Its’ successors, ‘This Is What You Wanted’ and ‘Went Missing’ seem to be Molko wrangling with the self.

The album’s closer, ‘Fix Yourself’ is my personal favourite. With an intro reminiscent of a Sade song, this air of sensuality keeps us afloat as all sound fades to repeated commands of "Go fix yourself, instead of someone else." It is this that Placebo has always subscribed to - a fierce need to launch the box off a ten-storey building to see if it will bounce, rather than sit neatly inside it.

To mark the release of Never Let Me Go, Placebo played five intimate shows in Europe. The shows largely remained a mystery to those who did not attend. The band has followed in Jack White’s footsteps by enforcing an audience camera ban at shows. What this will mean for festival and arena gigs remains to be seen.

Tomorrow, Placebo embarks on a tour for the remainder of the year. Never Let Me Go is an album that proclaims our future is unknown and that if we don't act now, we may not have one at all. I hope the same won't be said of them.