Review Summary: ...Eclipsed.
Placebo are f**king confusing. A hell of a lot's happened since 2006's brilliant Meds, a record which mixed their unique brand of punk-tinged alt-rock with a well-judged softer, poppier side. Their contract with Virgin expired and never got renewed, drummer Steve Hewitt left the band after 11 years due to 'creative and personal issues', and Brian Molko became so engrossed in the recording of Battle For The Sun that he totally forgot to cut his hair for a whole two years. Along with new drummer Steve Forrest and Stefan Olsdal, he also apparently forgot how good Meds was. Instead of taking the torch they lit in 2006 and using it to set the world on fire, their sixth studio album is largely a futile exercise in trying to re-invent the flame.
I hesitate to blame the band's newest member because it's evident that a number of the mis-fires on this album have nothing to do with the rhythm section, but it doesn't help matters that the first 2 and a half tracks here offer practically nothing in terms of enjoyment and very little in the way of originality, either. Alright, there are the handclaps on opener Kitty Litter
, between which Molko shouts I need a change of skin
, but really it's just a little quirk that people are meant to notice
– it doesn't do anything to save the previous three minutes of mediocrity. Thankfully, by mid-way through the title-track and lead single, there's a bit of momentum in the euphoric, jangly refrain and the record picks up from there onwards.
I mentioned the handclaps on the opening track but the experimentation is far more conscious and underlined than that, and miles from the subtle sound-shifts of Meds. Like the casio at the start of Bright Lights
which, although sounding nothing like Placebo, is hugely hooky and uplifting, accompanying a sing-along chorus – A heart that hurts / Is a heart that works
– and one of Battle For The Sun's obvious standouts. The piano in closer Kings of Medicine
is beautiful, and the atmospheric, aquatic tinkle which leads in Happy You're Gone
gradually pulls you under its spell. If you've listened to second single For What It's Worth
, though, you already know what's wrong with Battle; you just didn't notice because its music video was kind of intriguing and the rest of the song was also fairly epic. It's the f**king Tetris music. About two-thirds of the way through the fourth track, the music cuts out and there's just that irritating melody playing for about 3 seconds. Somehow, it doesn't induce hysteria, but it certainly is reflective of the rest of the record; the ridiculous 80s electronics sound that opens Julien
, for example, which actually develops into a cutting and intense track, just sounds out of place. There are trumpets and saxophones just for the hell of it. It's always nice to see a band branching out, but some direction goes a long way, and there's none here whatsoever.
Ashtray Heart was the band's name for a little while back when they first formed in 1994, and the track by that name here is Placebo-by-numbers with an uninspired vocal melody and standard mid/high-tempo guitars. The chorus' gang vocals are a good move, but the song as a whole achieves very little except bringing Placebo's career full-circle in some strange-but-hopefully-not-symbolic manner. The history of the title also calls into question how long Molko's been writing the song, and why it makes sense to include it now, but that's just speculation. It's an accurate representation of the material on offer though, because Battle For The Sun really does sound like it dusts off a career's worth of shelved ideas on the off-chance the group can execute them well with the benefit of experience, and for at least half the time, that's not the case.
But for all the things that are wrong with Battle For The Sun, it's still endearing. Molko is on top form, matching his Meds performance lyrically and vocally and bringing the exclusive atmosphere he's renowned for to so many numbers. On the aforementioned Julien, he's venomous; on Happy You're Gone
, he's reminiscent; on Kings of Medicine
, he's fragile. There's apparently also a 'thematic unity' here, which the frontman describes as 'choosing to live', and it's fair to say there's a more optimistic feel to the riffs and melodies than there ever has been before. Add to these things the fact that Placebo definitely still know how to write a solid rock song and it's by no means a poor effort, just an odd one which feels in search of a single musical niche and yet still manages to blend together because of an uninspired rhythm performance in the first half of most songs.
That said, there are
moments of class that hint Placebo still have something worth mining. These guys are capable of releasing a truly astounding pop-rock album even better than Meds, but this is nowhere close to being that leap forwards. For all its constant drive and captivating drama, Battle For The Sun too often sounds like a band trying to make a collection of songs more exciting by way of injecting arbitrary nuance instead of crafting any particular aesthetic. It's listenable and sometimes brilliant, but the simple facts are these: it's at least ten minutes too long, there are only three or four great songs here, and you'll find yourself playing Meds instead of this every single