Never Let Me Go (Album Review)

Never let Me Go is Placebo’s first studio album in a decade, but it’s hard to imagine the gap was entirely accidental. Their last album, strong like love (2013), was poorly received by critics and fans. Capping a long period of creative and commercial stasis after the band’s heyday at the turn of the millennium, it felt like a natural end point. Since then, Placebo has followed a proven rock ‘n’ roll revival plan. In 2016, they celebrated their 20th anniversary with a greatest hits album and tour. Then they started working on what would become Never let Me Go.

By chronology alone, Never let Me Go falls into the category of “comeback albums”. Certainly, with the world as chaotic, dysfunctional and dystopian as ever, the time would seem ripe for yet another fiery statement of intent from a group that has always saw the world as chaotic, dysfunctional and dystopian – even reveled in it. Unfortunately, however, Never let Me Go continues the trend of generally weak material and does very little to make it feel like it exists for anyone other than the fans who have stuck with Placebo thus far.

With the departure of drummer Steve Forrest, Placebo is, for the first time, officially reduced to the basic duo of Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal. Never let Me Go it looks like Molko and Olsdal tried to use the reconfiguration as an opportunity to both re-emphasize their core strengths and move past them. But they are not quite able to get out of it.

Placebo’s appeal has never been artistic range or musical innovation. Rather, their unique ability was to take the gloriously trashy, hedonistic, melody-driven ethos of glam rock and add a layer of postmodern angst and regret while retaining what made music fun in the first place and delivering the tunes. Molko’s indulgent, bawdy lyrics and somewhat stiff, helium-filled voice were never going to take over the world, but he and his bandmates were good for more than a few three-minute thrills and some really good albums, too.

Never let Me Go finds some of the old noise and volume. Beginning with the booming intro and midtempo crunch of opener “Forever Chemicals,” it has an industry-influenced boldness and louder guitars that will inevitably lead to proclamations of “returning to form.” It’s true that songs like “Hugz” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) and “Twin Demons” pick up the tempo and buzz power chord factor. But they fail to convey a real sense of energy, sounding more like a band that can’t help but do what it’s always done.

Or can they help him? A few tracks attempt relatively new approaches, like triumphant, rising strings on the anthem “The Prodigal.” But that, combined with cliched lyrics like “This wounded world will be one,” only places Placebo as Coldplay circa 2008. Molko and Olsdal said they caught the vintage synth bug with Never let Me Go. For them, that translates to little more than laced squirts and squiggles, making a disappointing two-chord single like “Beautiful James” sound downright silly. Ironically, when Molko sings “Bring Me Back To Life” on this track, he does so, sounding bored and tired. “Fix Yourself” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) uses a bossa nova beat. This may be a first for Placebo, but it’s not a good reason. Otherwise, the track is a familiar gothic chore.

Yes Never let Me Go at least finds a musical footing, what really dooms it is the songwriting – or lack thereof. Molko uses the same stilted, broken phrasing in too many songs as if pausing mid-verse to try and find a vocal hook. Alas, he often ends up settling for a phrase such as “I don’t want/I don’t think so” or “Falling into never” and repeating it over and over again. It’s a shame because there are a few positives.

The single “Try Better Next Time” (has there ever been a more Placebo song title?) Really East best thing they’ve done in ages. Simplified and with a memorable chorus, it brings back some of the magic of old “the world is burning and I feel good”. “Chemtrails”, one of many songs based on an escape theme, is pretty, sad and compassionate. When “Surrounded By Spies” introduces a drum’n’bass rhythm, it’s a rare musical advance, if not downright risky.

Die-hard Placebo fans are likely to enjoy Never let Me Go because it reminds them of what they like about the band. It’s a mixed blessing because callbacks are rarely as good as the real thing.