Thursday, 25 June 2009

Placebo - Battle For The Sun Album Review (2009)

Placebo are a true guilty pleasure. With a tendency to tell tales of real life with warts and all proudly on display, the threesome of Brian Molko, Sefan Olsdal and now drummer Steve Forrest always make challenging and interesting music, all wrapped up in Molko’s twisted heart-on-sleeve lyrics of sex, sexuality, drugs and darkness.

The highlight of the band’s career so far has to be 1998s Without You I’m Nothing, with the subtle yet menacing title track building slowly to an emotional climax, being the best thing Molko has put his voice to. Far superior in musical talent and production to the tentative but ballsy debut, the album is a masterpiece. From here, Black Market Music never reached the same levels of depth but has some great moments. A three year break brought a real lull for a band who peaked early and has never regained the early promise of all the right ingredients. Last effort Meds is ambitious but flat and again we have to wait three years for something else.

Battle For The Sun, produced by David Bottrill and mixed by (genius) Alan Moulder, is the first record with new drummer Forrest, features occasional brass arrangements, and is the best album Placebo has made since Without You I’m Nothing. It is bold, brave and brilliant.

Opener Kitty Litter sets the scene with a protracted grinding guitar intro. Molko’s distinctive operatic vocals let fly fairly familiar territory as he declares “I need a change of skin”. Always blatant and honest, this is a down and dirty love song. In the last minute, a cute handclap interlude threatens a lapse but they get away with it. Ashtray Heart sounds like an attempt at emo, but again it is unmistakably Placebo thanks to Molko’s voice. The guitar work is excellent which is more than can be said about the chorus. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just dull and predictable. Which is more than can be said for the title track…

Battle For The Sun is wonder from start to finish with the repetitive vocals teasing and caressing the percussion fuelled backing, pierced only by the constant throb of guitar until the pace builds into a more determined but equally repetitive rant. And then out of nowhere the strings wash in for the ‘chorus’: “Dream brother, my killer, my lover”. It is a case of rinse and repeat with a real moment of aggression and release after “You…are a cheap and nasty fake…And I…am the bones you could not break…” before the strings return. Then another bought of strings after a great guitar break, this time building to a wild and breathless climax. You will not hear a better constructed five and half minutes of music on another album this year.

For What It’s Worth is a great sub-three minute pop song, a simple beast full of great touches: blasts of brass, twisting guitars and breathy backing vocals. The band even find time for a Crystal Castles Atari interlude and then a pseudo-talky bit closing with “No one cares when you’re down in the gutter…got no friends, got no lover”. Then more brass and squeals of guitar. Great stuff. Devil In The Details provides the first of the albums delicate moments and an example of what Placebo do so well. It is uneasy, nasty, venomous and utterly compelling with a gorgeous melody under Molko’s tension and angst. Again, guitars and drums provide an enormous torrent of sound to compliment the vocals. The song finally opens up. “All of the songs I hope to write one day…Looks like the Devil’s here to stay”. A great open-hearted album-defining piece.

Into Bright Lights, a much lighter Killers-esque tribute that almost works very well. In the end the spirally electronic guitars provide the lift as Molko talks about ’open prisons’ and ’finding the true and inner me’. Another soaring chorus brings “A heart that hurts…is a heart that works”, proving that amongst all the seemingly evident banality there is still a flair for great song writing. It is different yet formulaic.

Speak In Tongues is a definite weak low point until about a minute and a half when it suddenly explodes into life and Placebo become Smashing Pumpkins - all epic emotion, guitars and crashing drums. “We can build a new tomorrow…today” has Molko reaching for the heights again. The Never Ending Why is more trash-rock with brass and ends up just going through the motions - a downbeat morose chorus is saved only by the guitar work. To raise the lull of a sub-par trio, Julien is a down and dirty determined tale of loss and sorrow full of metaphor. It sounds very laboured at times in spite of some fantastic music. But “You can run but you can’t hide. Because no one here gets out alive…” is hardly inspired writing. Molko goes on to repeat “Slow motion suicide” ad nauseam.

Happy You’re Gone is a glorious return to form, like a Bright Lights part two. The song is a series of slow meandering walks between string soaked blasts of rock-opera. Breathe Underwater is all about the vocal arrangement and some more sublime drumming. Again, this is nothing massively new but it’s committed, edgy and brimming with energy.

Come Undone is another magnificent song, fragile at first then it kicks off in style: “You don’t know how you’re coming across, acting like you don’t give a toss, walking around like you’re on some kind of cross, it’s a shame on you the irony’s lost…”. Superb guitars yet again blending to create soaring melody and a huge central instrumental break. For the massive finale, Molko delivers his best vocals of the album.

The album closes with another gem Kings of Medicine, tinged with humour, references of drink and drugs and going astray. Musically it pulls together piano, trumpets, guitars and just about everything else. A fitting climax to the album worthy of the Polyphonic Spree!

Molko and the boys are back and sounding more determined than ever. For the most part Battle For The Sun is focused and determined, serious and full of ideas. Some of the band’s usual charm is lost in a few excursions into formula but these are minor indiscretions.

Battle For The Sun is far from perfect. But then again nothing ever is.
-- CS

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