Placebo released their long-awaited eighth studio album Never Let Me Go today. Coming nine years on from the release of Loud Like Love, Placebo are on fire again.
More than a quarter-century since vocalist-guitarist Brian Molko and bassist Stefan Olsdal started bashing around with broken guitars and toy instruments in Molko’s front room in Deptford, the core duo have dug very deep to spirit up their gobsmackingly urgent eighth long-player.
Never Let Me Go channels all their skill as songwriters and sound-makers into music that satisfies their near-brutal appetite for self-expression, but also seeks a furious relevance with the early-’20s world we all find ourselves in – crawling out of the pandemic into a landscape of intolerance, division, tech-saturation and imminent eco-catastrophe. As such, the 2021-model Placebo are the diametric opposite of mid-career complacency, tackling both global issues and their own creative demands head on. The option to sit back and coast on former glories was there on a plate for them when they were last among us circa 2016-18.
Prior to the release of the album, Brian Molko was kind enough to take us track-by-track through Never Let Me Go, giving deep insight into the inspiration behind each song.
01 Forever Chemicals
Well, Forever Chemicals was probably the first track on the album that we started working on, and that's probably why it's the first. In around 2016, I was sat in my studio with Stef, on the iPad, I had this drum machine, and I quickly programmed the beat, just like that. Then I realised that you could take that beat with this drum machine and put it on to any instrument from an orchestra. So I put the drum beat on a harp and I distorted it and put some delay on it. And then you've got that loop that from Forever Chemicals that opens the album, and it's kind of cool because it was sort of slightly reminiscent of Infra-Red, but more brutal kind of a statement of intent sonically, for the record, to kind of start with that and Forever Chemicals is one of the songs that I rewrote over and over and over again lyrically. It started off as a song about police brutality and I tried to put myself in the heart and soul of somebody who had lost someone, uh, who'd been murdered by the police, then as I spoke to more people I was I was kind of advised not really to go there and I wondered if I was going to be inviting a great deal of aggro into my life. And I'm kind of glad they did because it forced me to go into sort of a more ambiguous territory with Forever Chemicals. What it's actually about, I think, is that it is up to the listener.
02 Beautiful James
Beautiful James was one of the songs whose title came from my never ending list of song titles that I'd kind of written. And when you pluck a song like Beautiful James, it can't be about a swimming pool or the songs always going to be about a person, but I didn't want to, again, I didn't want to tell people what it was about, I wanted people to find their own James and find comfort in their own story within that. It doesn't really matter to me what gender or sexuality they the people who inhabit the songs are, I think it's important for each person to find themselves in this kind of modern love song, which is about more than just love, it's about security and, you know, soul connection.
Musically, it's very interesting because when we were in in our studio and mixing Beautiful James, it occurred to me that it had been like eight years since we'd put out a single. And then for some reason, I was reminded of this American band who were in a huge rock band in the States and then went away for a while in the 80s and then in 1984 came back with this with this massive global hit called ‘Jump’, and this band was Van Halen. You know, they came back from the wilderness after being one of the biggest American rock bands and became like this this global chart topping band with this song called ‘Jump’, which really broke the mold for Van Halen because they had this the axe god, Eddie Van Halen playing keyboards. And so all the Van Halen fans were completely disgusted and then everybody who wasn't a Van Halen fan, heard ‘Jump’, and all of a sudden became a Van Halen fan. And it occurred to me that they were kind of, you know, career similarities between us and Van Halen at this point, you know, and that perhaps Beautiful James was our ‘Jump’. And then I went back and I listened to Jump the next day for the first time in about 30 years, and it's exactly the same keyboard sound. The keyboard sound is identical.
Hugz for me fulfills part of the remit of what I wanted to do on this record, I wanted to talk about a kind of self-loathing which I've kind of touched on a lot in the past, but in terms of the sonics with Hugz, it very much reflects my reaction to what we've done before, our last tour, our last single, our last album, Hugz kind of epitomises the sort of the sonic brutality that I wanted to kind of inhabit on this record. And the initial inspiration comes from Doctor Who because it's a line that Peter Capaldi says, when he's hugging his companion, she wants a hug and so he gives her a hug, but he says it's just a way of hiding your face. And the first time I saw that episode of Doctor Who, I just went, OK, thank you, you know, there we go that's just perfect I'm going to make a song out of that. A hug is just another way of hiding your face. It's that kind of duality that that that's interesting for me, you know, an act which is meant to be intimate also, it's about hiding yourself.
04 Happy Birthday In The Sky
Happy Birthday In The Sky for me, is one of the more heartbreaking moments on the album. Happy Birthday In The Sky is a phrase that I've been using, you know, for for quite some time. When I say, happy birthday to people who aren't with us anymore, you know, like David Bowie, for example, and it communicates the kind of heartbreak that we're really, really good at communicating I think you know that that sense of loss, that sense of desperation. It's as if a part of your your body and your soul has been ripped from you unfairly. And you pine and you pine and you wait.
I have a certain amount of drama training you know, from Goldsmiths College, which is sort of the method, you know, so that it tells you to act from the inside out. So you start with really, really personal things and you externalise them,. That’s how I how I manage to kind of communicate this emotion. I think truthfully and honestly to an audience, by somewhat inhabiting that feeling by putting myself in that position when it's performed and feeling the heartbreak. Concerts that come across as mechanical are ones where I find myself unable to do that, to inhabit the emotion within the song. I do that a lot during performance and put I put myself in the shoes of the narrator emotionally, which can be really draining and I think a lot of people don't understand why I wouldn't want to go to an after show party or I wouldn't want to go to a discotheque after the show when all I want is some food and to collapse because I've basically given everything I can emotionally and there's nothing left. I'm just an empty shell. You kind of inhabit these difficult emotions 12, 13, 15, 20 times a night.
What I am thinking is that this is kind of so visceral and so intense emotionally that it's really going to communicate something very powerful to the listener. And that's basically all I'm interested in. At what cost? Who cares. As long as the song really, really moves people, then whatever sacrifices you have to make in order to get there are fine with me or that you will continue to make in the future. It's not such a bad thing to inhabit these emotions you're very, very much alive and in the moment while you're doing them.
05 The Prodigal
The Prodigal is a red herring on the record, really. Many years ago, I was asked to write a song, the theme song to a movie, to a French film about a rock band. This film never got made, but there's a death that occurs on stage during during this film that never got made and I was asked to kind of to write the song. So I decided to write a kind of Buddhist influenced song about death. So it kind of had to be a happy song about dying and so I set out to do that for this film, and when I originally wrote it, it sounded exactly like, ‘Where is my mind’ by the Pixies, you know, which is cool, but I mean it was almost a carbon copy. And then when we got into the studio, our producer, Adam Noble, suggested that we approach it from a completely different angle. And he suggested that we approach it from a kind of an Eleanor Rigby kind of angle which just fed straight into mine and Stef's Beatles obsession. You know, that got us extremely excited. So we rewrote the whole music sort of based around these kind of propelling strings. It’s a song doesn't sound like any other song on the record because it's sort of it's just completely string led, but we'd never done that before. So that's what interested us.
06 Surrounded By Spies
Surrounded By Spies is an interesting song for me because I, it all kind of started when I used to realise that my neighbours were spying on me. And then it's just kind of then I just ended up thinking about surveillance and privacy and where we're at in terms of privacy today. I realise that our privacy is being eroded in so many ways that we don't even realise and that we are also active participants in the erosion of our privacy by offering up all of this, all of this information to companies and eventually to fraudsters or to whoever in the world wants to have it. Extremely personal information that can be used to manipulate us, that can be used to defraud us, that can be used to influence us in God knows how many ways and how we've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the pot of gold, you know, which is this ever youthful, ever optimistic, ever enthusiastic, colourful thing, which is social media. This vacuous thing and what we've offered up in order to have this at our beck and call at any moment. So these days, when people complain about their relationship to social media, I'm kind of like, what, you're upset because you can't show your nipples on Instagram.
If you want to expose yourself on social media, if you want to talk about your most private moments on posts in social media, do you get validation from that or if it if you find therapeutic relief from that, or if you just want a poster dinner or whatever it's just it's your prerogative. You can if you want that but just because you do, don't expect me to, you know, why should I make the same deal with the devil that you made? Why can't I make my own? Why do I have to do it on your terms, just because this is the kind of exposure that you've decided that you're personally willing to put out into the world? There's a kind of tacit pressure that for people who are quiet like me and private like me, that we should be exposing ourselves more because you're a performer. But you know, I don't. I don't have a Faustian pact with the media, I don't actively go out there and look for column inches whenever something important happens in my life, you know, I don't do a spread in Hello or I don't post pictures of my family on social media. I don't expose my private life and just because other people find it completely natural to do that, I don't see why quiet people like me should feel pressured to do the same.
07 Try Better Next Time
Try Better Next Time for me is very much my song about the environment. You know, it's a disillusioned, disappointed song. It's very disappointed in humanity. It's basically saying, good riddance, humanity, try better next time, you know, next time you come back and get a chance to live on this beautiful planet, you know, try better. It's a story about people who live underground, about growing fins and going back to the water. It's a very disillusioned song about the climate disaster presented in a sort of three minute Weezer ish kind of pop punk thing. If you dig deeper, it's one of the more disturbing songs because it's talking about an extinction event next, you know, the extinction of human beings, but is presented in in in an extremely jolly, upbeat happy, catchy way which is something that we do quite well, present something quite depressing in an upbeat fashion.
08 Sad White Reggae
Sad White Reggae. A lot of these songs were written during periods of insomnia and Sad White Reggae is one of them. It's about three o'clock in the morning. Can't sleep. And for some reason I was I decided I was going to work out how to play Roxanne by the Police, and I couldn't and I ended up writing this song instead. And because I was trying to copy the Police I called it, Sad White Reggae because that's essentially what the first two Police albums is. It's just Sad White Reggae, so it's a little in-joke for me, private joke, which kind of makes its way onto the album. That's my song for Scotland. I think I'm going to get the I think Dundee is going to give me the key to the city when this record comes out. I managed to get Jane Birkin, Lama Yeshe, and my mum into the same song and Dundee.
09 Twin Demons
Twin Demons, the original germination of Twin Demons it started in a yoga class, and I was and this yoga teacher said to me, ‘your monkey mind is drunk and bitten by a scorpion and possessed by demons’ and said, it's an old, old Hindu or Buddhist koan or saying and it just sort of that just landed. It just landed so solidly in my head. And so its lyrics that I had earmarked for a very, very long time and finally, I got the opportunity to use them. My first yoga inspired song about addiction, naturally, the twin demons of addiction and depression.
As we were sort of getting more and more into our vintage synthesisers and kind of, you know, losing ourselves in a kind of psychedelic synth universe, we were way aware that we couldn't really sort of lose the rock on this album and so we were kind of concerned that there had to be a good balance and Twin Demons, you know, really kind of provides, you know, a very strong rock anchor within this record and sort of enables us to be more experimental and more out there in other places
Chemtrails is my Brexit song during lockdown, I felt this kind of impending doom was coming, and this impending doom was was Brexit, you know it's been very well documented the effect that it's had on and on every band in this country. So by December 2020, I found myself just so psychologically brutalised by the twin demons of of coronavirus and then Brexit. And I was so furious and so angry that it was actually kind of making me ill. And I decided that I had to stop existing in the problem and start living in the solution. So in February 2021, I left and I don't live here anymore. I live in Europe and I come back here for work and Chemtrails was kind of my my fuck you. My fuck you at the people that had sort of taken away part of my identity, an identity of mine that I spent my entire life inhabiting which was being European. So I left England because of Brexit and rewrote the lyrics to that song and it became Chemtrails and it became about me leaving this island and finding another one where society is a little bit freer and less jingoistic and xenophobic and sociopathic.
11 This Is What You Wanted
I guess for me, This Is What You Wanted, it's quite an ambiguous track, but that for me, it's quite a simple thing. It's it's a song about not blaming other people for your own mistakes. I'm kind of talking to myself in this song. I've done that since Song To Say Goodbye, you know, from time to time, so I'm kind of having a dialogue with dialogue with myself and I suppose what I'm saying to myself is just, you can't blame other people for your choices, This is what you wanted.
12 Went Missing
Somebody else wrote something very interesting about Went Missing, which I thought was was pretty prescient really. Somebody said that it was a song about someone who survives through invisibility, somebody who exists in the complete opposite way and most people exist today, which is by exposing themselves literally in some cases or presenting to the world a kind of a contrived formatted version of your own life. And the narrator in Went Missing, is doing the opposite. But it's also kind of for me, it's, it's a reflection on my relationship with controlled substances, with addictive behaviour and how to all the places that it's taken me and taken me to places where I felt like I'd lost myself. And it's also sort of a kind of a shout out or cry out for some kind of some kind of protection. There's a line in it that talks about secret destroyers and those secret destroyers could be anything, but they're the things that that creep up on you without without even realising them, like an addiction or like heartbreak or like cancer, things that we can't control.
One of the more meditative moments on the record, and was born out of me sort of meditating on my various addictive relationships, I suppose. And the consequences that it had and how I did become absent and how at certain points in my life, you know, I would just disappear. And disappear for weeks sometimes. Also to me about the people who are left behind, who are left going, ‘well, where's he disappeared to this time? When is he coming back? Is he ever coming back?’ The fact that I went missing for a living meant that it was something that happened a great deal, and like a lot of things in my writings, it's me processing externally a lot of stuff that I've been dealing with internally and often because it's your own voice inside and it's all wrapped up in emotion. You can't really make head or tail of what's what's really going on you externalise it in a song or any other artistic endeavour. You do get a little bit of distance from it, and so you're able to understand what's going on with you and what's going on with you in the past, through what you've written. Sometimes these songs allow you to get to know yourself more than you thought.
13 Fix Yourself
Fix Yourself is another fuck you song, you know, it's the anti ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay. Why would somebody want to fix someone else? Therapists make livings out of it, parents want to fix their children, want to mold their children into their own image or an image of what they think is worthwhile. Society tries to make you conform morally and ethically to whatever is accepted as being moral and ethical during that day or that period of history.
The most powerful line for me in Fix Yourself is ‘I'm bored of your Caucasian Jesus.’ I'm bored of the hypocrisy, I'm bored of the bullshit, I'm bored of the lies. I'm bored of people who are as fucked up as I am, making a living fixing other people, I'm like ‘physician, heal thyself, fix yourself first’, instead of walking around, trying to tell everybody else what to feel, how to feel, who to be, what's right, what's wrong, what's moral, what's immoral. Bullshit! I call bullshit on it all. Just bourgeois societal mores that we all kind of aspire to so that we don't have to think. I'm bored of it, and that's what I'm expressing in this song. And for me, it was kind of that was sort of the perfect way to end to end the record.
Listen to Never Let Me Go