It’s amazing to think Placebo have been around for 15 years now. The sexual ambiguities that frontman Brian Molko traded on to the irritation of some have been toned down as he enters his late 30s, and with three years having passed since the band’s last album (Meds) there is a feeling that this is a pivotal time in Placebo’s career.
Since Meds the band have recruited their third drummer (Steve Forrest) and parted company with long-term label EMI. Molko and co team up with veteran alt-rock producer David Bottrill for the new album, which instantly sets alarm bells ringing. Are Placebo trying to keep pace with the younger emo upstarts who emerged in their wake, or is this a genuine attempt to try something a little different?
Hearing the first track Kitty Litter the listener will be hard pressed to notice anything different. It’s the type of song that Placebo has mastered to perfection over the course of their career. A brash guitar riff, sweeping keyboards and massed vocals, with Molko spitting out lines such as “I need a change of skin” to keep all the ageing goths in the band’s fanbase happy.
Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that on every track Molko and Bottrill have opted for the immediate whack in the gut rather than trading in the clever wordplay and nuanced subtleties that made Placebo such an appealing band.
Tracks such as Ashtray Heart, Devil In The Details, The Never-Ending Why and Breathe Underwater are lumpen rock songs that pale in comparison to Placebo’s classic back catalogue. Much has been made in press releases of the fact that Battle For The Sun features the band’s most diverse range of instrumentation to date, but trying to pick out the saxophones and trumpets is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Battle For The Sun attempts to bludgeon the listener into submission, but at the expense of the band’s melodic nous and Molko’s lyrics. Generally this is a more upbeat album than previous efforts, and although Molko was guilty in the past of straying too far into sixth-form angst territory at least his lyrics always grabbed the listener’s attention. Here, they lack any real bite and just fade into the general mix.
Battle For The Sun is best when the trio slows things down and stick to the tried and tested Placebo blueprint. The title track, Speaking In Tongues and Kings Of Medicine mix electronica and heavy rock to good effect, recalling classic-era albums such as Black Market Music and Sleeping With Ghosts. Tellingly, it is on these tracks that the band is roused to display some of the bite and anger that originally made them such an appealing prospect.
Previous Placebo albums have taken a while to sink in after initial listens, with the career highlight Black Market Music a good case in point. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this will be the case with Battle For The Sun. The album may revive the band’s career in North America, but for many of their loyal fans it will come as a major disappointment.