10 January 2010

Placebo: Retrospective on "Placebo"

What started in 1994 is the start of the band that I hold dearest to my heart, Placebo. Releasing their eponymous debut (16 July 1996), the band was originally composed of lead singer Brian Molko pairing up with guitarist/bassist Stefan Olsdal and drummer Robert Schultzberg (Steve Hewitt was the original and preferred choice, but he was not able to join the band as a full-time member because of former commitments until 1997), and they are the continuation of a musical tradition / legacy that David Bowie set blazing in the 70s. The band possesses a similar persona and stage appearance to Bowie and their sound is just as obscure and diverse. Placebo is the epitome of what many may call “teenage angst” but they can’t possibly be compared to other bands of the same category. Despite their seemingly raw lyrics, Placebo is so much deeper and poetic than that. It’s not about the endless issues that teenagers engage in even though it may seem so. It’s about the period of adjustment, from childhood into adulthood, the issues that everyone can relate to and the fact that “nothing ever, ever goes our way.”

As the years go by, Placebo apparently grows up from singing about teenage issues to deeper issues that an ordinary person deals with throughout life. As they grow, so do their music. However, as great as they are, they may take a while to adjust to and love. Their sound is sometimes harsh and jagged but at one point, deathly catchy to anyone from anywhere. You can’t help but sing alongside Brian’s eclectic voice and varying falsetto. Their lyrics are provocative and vulgar at times as they are so different in terms of sexuality, identity and appeal. However, it is what sets them apart from other bands that appeal to the same audience.

Their debut album contains the song “Nancy Boy” which is probably Placebo’s most known single from their early years. It is what they are known for, Brian’s bisexuality and androgyny, Stefan’s homosexuality, and [insert drummers name’s] heterosexuality (Placebo’s drummers have always been straight). Despite the usual insults to Brian looking effeminate, it is what he is known for. Nancy boy literally means a feminine and homosexual boy, which Brian completely claims as his act in this track and album. His feminine features, his bob-cut, short and black hair completely sets the mood of the stage and may confuse, entertain and change the minds of millions of listeners. The song has various elements: humor, relation, ambiguity, and curiosity. The chorus “And it all breaks down at the role reversal, got the muse in my head she's universal, spinnin' me round she's coming over me, me” can sound pretty but be hard to make sense of; however, the lines “Does his makeup in his room, douse himself with cheap perfume, eyeholes in a paper bag. Greatest lay I ever had” makes perfect sense. That is one of the many beauties of this band: the interchanging between concrete and abstract lyrics. Certain lines of lyrics may seem so paradox but the lyrics are relatable and understandable.

The album’s first track, “Come Home,” describes a situation as being “Stuck between the do or die” he feels “emaciated,” “Glass and petrol vodka gin, it feels like breathing methane. Throw yourself from skin to skin, and still it doesn't dull the pain. Vanish like a lipstick trace, it always blows me away.” With just reading these lyrics, it may seem that the mood of the song is dreary and almost depressing; however, it is upbeat in terms of Brian’s voice. The energy that comes out of his voice is unbelievable. The descriptions of the emotions are so vivid it captures an age within a lyric.

“Teenage Angst,” probably within my top-ten favorite Placebo tracks, has one of the best lines I ever heard in music. “Since I was born I started to decay. Now nothing ever - ever goes my way.” The track is short, sweet, and simple and it gets the point across. There is no complexity to the song, it is exactly what the title implies, simple teenage angst.

What makes Placebo amazing is that they are their music. There is no pretense or attempt to hide who they are. And though the 80s would accept androgyny and queerity, the 90s, set with grunge in the USA and Britpop in the UK, would not. (Sure Britpop would flirt with “sexuality,” at the end of it all these artists always asserted their heterosexuality or claimed to have no “homosexual experiences.”) Placebo was not going to allow their narratives to define the reception of their music. Though some markets would not embrace Placebo from the start, they could not close them out completely. Attested by their arena and stadium performances, as well as festival headlines, all over the world, this album, “Placebo,” is the start of a musical era where musical and songwriting talents trumps bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And what talent proves is not that Placebo has given the world an amazing, defiant stance on bigotry, but rather what Placebo has given the world is a musical legacy that is greater than their individual parts. Placebo moves from average band to icons and institution, and it all started with this incredible debut.

Track Listing:
1. Come Home
2. Teenage Angst
3. Bionic
4. 36 Degrees
5. Hang On to Your IQ
6. Nancy Boy
7. I Know
8. Bruise Pristine
9. Lady of the Flowers
10. Swallow

Keep up with Placebo at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is their video for Nancy Boy from their PlaceboWorld Vimeo Channel.

Placebo - Nancy Boy from PlaceboWorld on Vimeo.

1 comment:

  1. You're completely right. Placebo is definitely an obscure and diverse band, which takes time to like and appreciate. Not only is their sound amazing but so are their lyrics. Although "Nancy Boy" was a freakin' amazing song, "Come Home" was definitely my ultimate favorite. I love how Brian Molko can drown you into the song with his voice. I also admire how Placebo isn't afraid of what people think. Their lyrics are real, not fake (the whole pop-star-cookie-cutter ordeal).