In a time that is so often synonymous with suffering, some of the best artists turn toward this bleak landscape to inspire their creative senses—as they try not to go mad. Battling insomnia brought on by Brexit, lockdown, and a host of other troubles with little more than a pen, Placebo’s Brian Molko does just this on his band’s latest, Never Let Go, which arrived on March 25, 2022, thanks to Rise Records/BMG.
It’s been nearly nine years since the British duo of Molko and Stefan Olsdal, each a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, delivered their last collection of new material, 2013’s Loud Like Love. Known for their brand of Alternative Rock sucking face with Britpop, the androgynous pair made their eponymous debut in 1996 before going on to author 1998’s “Every You Every Me,” 2003’s Sleeping with Ghosts, and 2006’s “Meds” (and Meds). With an oeuvre of outstanding material and a proven track record of excellence, what’s a nine-year wait?
Perfection “requires the hand of time,” as Voltaire once noted. To be perfectly imperfect, as Cryptic Rock once said, it apparently takes nearly a decade. Here to prove our thesis, Placebo present their eighth overall release, Never Let Go. Its languid creation sits on a foundation crafted from the absurd intricacies and contradictions of contemporary life, not least of which is our society’s blase attitude toward, well, everything. A surreality witnessed through Molko’s insomniac eyes, the (lucky) 13-song collection launches with “Forever Chemicals,” opening to a distorted loop. As with many of Placebo’s lyrical compositions, there is an intentional ambiguity, but one with nods toward our society’s collective apathy.
Next, the melodic melancholia of “Beautiful James” offers listeners synths that jump with nostalgia for the 1980s, and “Sad White Reggae” fails to walk a straight line while under the influence of The Police. A rocker born of yogic knowledge, “Twin Demons” sees addiction and depression tangoing amid a crashing beat, while the duality of “Hugz” turns a normally joyful embrace into a camouflage for self-loathing. But can we ever truly hide in a world so connected? The chopped-up “Surrounded By Spies” pilfered privacy in 2022.
These themes sit alongside concepts that reach far beyond the personal to the universal. For example, with a checked bag full of remembrances of those lost, they capitalize on Olsdal’s bass skills and Molko’s talent in evoking the visceral for “Happy Birthday in the Sky.” There’s a similar transcendence to “The Prodigal,” a phoenix reborn for the record, though, originally conceived some years back. A stand-out track on an album full of quality content, its cinematic string arrangement, worthy of the theatre, begs listeners to embrace life before its final curtain call. Though not necessarily similar in sound, “Try Better Next Time” sits on a nearby library shelf. A catchy look at the cyclic nature of our fumbles and flippancy, it mocks those who would rather stop to take a selfie than appreciate nature—or fight to protect it!
Although, sometimes we have to put ourselves above the big picture and focus on our own mental health. The solemn confessions of the Brexit-fueled “Chemtrails” depict one of these instances, where the negative energy surrounding an international kerfuffle inspires Molko to make a major life change. It could have been a regrettable situation, one where the musician might be forced to bitterly lament his choice. It could have led to a moment where he thought, spitefully, “This Is What You Wanted.” The song, a delicate lullaby to your own special hell of disappointment, makes its case with beautiful piano and sultry saxophone.
The final pair of offerings from Never Let Go are as diverse as their predecessors. For “Went Missing,” the duo delivers cinematic sonics that add an urgency that is juxtaposed against Molko’s languid Spoken Word storytelling; creating the perfect ASMR moment. Then there’s the grand finale, “Fix Yourself.” While Coldplay has tried to fix you and Stabbing Westward can’t even save themselves, Placebo step in to suggest that no one can save you but you. It’s an obvious concept that sits perfectly amid the sleepy swirl of insomniac tinkering, inviting us to do better, be better, and never let go.
Placebo is one of few bands that has managed to successfully bring their 1990’s Alt Rock approach into the 2000s without suffering an identity crisis or, worse yet, becoming a gimmick. There’s something comforting and cathartic in Molko’s familiar vocals and his proud refusal to edit his truths for nearly three decades. An act ahead of their time, they have been challenging our minds and bending our interpretations for years, always with intelligent lyrics delivered with brutal sincerity.
Never Let Go is just this: finely-detailed surgery performed on a brutalized heart residing in a battered world. From the personal struggles to the worldwide catastrophes we all know too well, this is an album that digs deep with a bludgeoning delicacy. It takes a cool determination to stitch closed the wounds of the past few years, and Placebo has certainly shown themselves beneficial to the psyche. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Never Let Go 5 out of 5 stars.