Black Market Music

Black Market Music

This is a case of ambition eclipsing talent, of hubris, of a band losing the plot...

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. In recent interviews, Brian Molko has been as desperately, irrationally defensive as a cornered animal facing its executioner. He has seen raised daggers in Dictaphones and conspiracies in the harmless taunts of teenpop starlets, positioning himself as a misunderstood artist battling a sinister, unforgiving media. However, his pre-emptive strike against detractors has only fuelled the backlash he fears. It’s unfortunate, but inevitable, that appraisals of Placebo‘s third album will be coloured as much by questions of Molko‘s character as they will be by the songs.

There used to be something admirable about Placebo‘s commitment to the rock’n’roll myth – they were a narcotic, boozy excess story, providing a splash of rouge-stained bravado in an era dominated by the bland leading the bland. This was bolstered by the glam adrenaline rush of their first album and the brooding, self-analytical distress of their second. It was easy to turn a deaf ear to Molko‘s pretension, to all the oooh! controversial! sexual ambiguity palaver, and enjoy the songs.

Now the debate about Molko‘s sex-dwarf persona has shifted to speculation that the most perverse word in his vocabulary might be alopecia, and patience with his arrogance has begun to wear thin. This is a crucial juncture – Placebo either silence cynics with an album of exceptional grace and daring brilliance, or succumb to humiliation.

). Molko has attempted to write ‘characters’, but the results are unconvincing – ‘Black-Eyed’ is about people who blame their adult personality disorders on the ‘trials’ of their childhoods, but it’s unclear whether Molko is knocking or joining them; while ‘Haemoglobin’ does a pretty good job of allying Molko‘s vilification with the lynching of a black man in the American South. Yeah, really.

Surprisingly – for a band so proficient in bristly riffs – ballads provide the most satisfying moments, and the gentle ‘Peeping Tom’ is the only evidence of real pathos, possibly because when Molko sings, “I’m weightless/I’m bare/I’m faithless/I’m scared”, he actually seems to mean it. Far worse are Placebo‘s efforts at sonic expansion. The – cringe – hip-hop track ‘Spite & Malice’ features guest American Justin Warfield rapping, “Dope, guns, fucking in the streets, revolution”. It’s Placebo‘s attempt to ‘get political’ in a Primal Scream/ADF kinda way. And it’s incredibly embarrassing.

This is a case of ambition eclipsing talent, of hubris, of a band losing the plot. Placebo‘s frame of reference has always been narrow, but they’ve now been reduced to empty gestures without any visionary tunes to tip the balance. If this is the backlash that Molko predicted, it isn’t due to a conspiracy of hostility, or a reaction to Molko‘s charmless personality. It’s simply because the record isn’t very good. Molko‘s real enemy isn’t the press. It isn’t Daphne & Celeste. He has no-one to blame but himself.