Review Summary: An understated indie rock classic.
For Placebo, getting comfortable in their own skin was, and maybe still is, a bit hard to do. With such follow-up albums like Without You I'm Nothing and Black Market Music, they toyed with electronic elements and samples in certain songs, and while it did pay off big time, the result of that was an ever-changing decision of either substance or atmosphere. However, it is their stripped-down debut album that blends the two in the best way possible, and they have never sounded better or more comfortable with their own sound since.
The cover photography does a perfect job of resembling Placebo's initial aesthetic: an amalgam of U2's War and Edvard Munch's "The Scream." It may look like an awkward picture, but it's a good kind of awkward. And somehow, that's exactly the opposite kind of sensation that Placebo achieve on this record; Molko's helium-injected vocals, as well as his mesmerizing guitar tones and Schultzberg's crisp drumming are confident and assured, not stumbling and insecure. Awkwardness is something that you would expect most bands to run into on their debut, but that is strangely not the case for Placebo.
Now, Placebo was not the only band to take a grunge-lite approach to their debut (Pablo Honey, anyone?), but they were the most successful in doing so. Instead of sounding completely derivative and foolish, Placebo separate themselves from their ilk by drawing upon the subtleties of the genre rather than the trademarks. Yet grunge isn't the only genre influence on this album. Producer Brad Wood, who has produced such indie-pop/lo-fi touchstones as Exile in Guyville, definitely helped some in portraying their sweeter indie rock tendencies, as on "Come Home" and "Hang on to Your IQ," the latter of which sounds like it could be on American Football's first record. As for the elephant in the room, Britpop, that one remains as more of a catch-all term, as Placebo doesn't nearly begin to branch out into Oasis or Pulp territory. Yes, they are from the UK, but what does location matter anyway?
With this album comes its spare, short, and yes, sweet moments, like trash can drums opening up "Come Home," digeridoo in "I Know," and gaping synths on "Swallow/H.K. Farewell," but in the grand scheme of sounds, there really is nothing else to it other than drums, guitars, bass, and vocals, with slight touches of keyboards. As Placebo navigates from grunge fuzz ("Bruise Pristine") to jangly indie rock ("Lady of the Flowers") and even pop-punk ("36 Degrees"), they know for sure that whatever they do, they will do it with confidence. They are not nomads, nor are they wanderers. They are skilled artists at their craft.
And another thing about this album: it seems like with a lot of records, the best songs are on the first half of the album. Placebo, on the other hand, will never be able to beat the undefeatable string of ear-pleasing songs from "Nancy Boy" all the way to "Swallow." "Nancy Boy" is the perfect mixture of distortion and sexual prowess. Gentle acoustic guitar fills in the cracks of "I Know." "Bruise Pristine," while having a similar, yet muted, guitar intro to "Nancy Boy," has the kind of chorus that you just can't kick for days. The spoken word sections on "Lady of the Flowers" and "Swallow" are filtered and pushed back in the mix, which sounds all the more captivating. Put it all together in order, and you have yourself one of the finest second-half sequences of any album ever. Sure, the first half was pretty much all unabashed indie rock, but with time, Placebo builds into their sound more, adding more depth of feeling. It's as if they were aware that the first half was going to be flat in terrain but that as they went along, they would come across more sonic hills and plateaus.
But, of course, you wouldn't have a Placebo album without atmosphere. Thanks to some keyboard melodies and synthesized drones towards the end of their self-titled effort, they evoke an eerie (and dark) mood, sometimes even melancholy, like on "Lady of the Flowers." And as said before, the entire first half of the album, like on "Bionic" or "Teenage Angst," is Placebo at their warmest as well as at their most raw and unfiltered. "Earnest" would probably be a better way of describing it.
What should be the one downside to this album are the lyrics. Despite the ridiculously catchy words on "Nancy Boy," other such tracks as "Bionic" are extremely minimalist. "None of you can make the grade," is as vague as ever, and on paper, doesn't look nearly as good. Luckily, the music helps to overcome the lack of essence that these words have. Five minutes of good old instrumental 80s-style college rock a la Sonic Youth. And "Swallow" being a spoken word number does not benefit from its lyrics, that is, except for when Molko mutters "s-stop st-st-stammer stop stammering" and the menacing synth cuts out just before he can say another word.
Closing off what could probably be considered the pinnacle of Placebo's discography, their self-titled debut ends with the instrumental jam session that is "H.K. Farewell." Hinted at in the slower-paced "Hang on to Your IQ," "H.K. Farewell" leaves the listener in a state of serene relaxation after all of the different jagged guitar melodies, intricate drum patterns, and moody lyrics that this album had to offer. It may seem inessential at first, but it is most definitely cozy and warm, like sitting in front of a fireplace on Christmas Eve, which is exactly where Placebo needed to be. Even after all the adventures that Placebo has gone through, they didn't need to "come home" on their debut. They were already there.
"Hang on to Your IQ"
"Lady of the Flowers" (BEST TRACK)
Overall Rating: 5/5