I have a friend named Imp who's been smoking for more than a decade. Last November, he picked up the third Placebo record, Black Market Music (Virgin) on UK import. He heard the song "Slave to the Wage," and its lyrics, "All it takes is one decision, a lot of guts, a little vision." He'd found his mantra and quit cold turkey. Imp put it best when he e-mailed me about it: "Feeling a general void in something to believe in, I found them at precisely the time I needed them. I think they even helped me through things less tangible, but the strength to overcome an addiction is powerful stuff."
When Stefan Olsdal, the band's bass player and sartorial totem (with shaved head, black-rimmed eyes, and more than six feet of heighth, he strikes quite an image), called me from the band's stop in Detroit, I told him Imp's story. "That's so great," he said. "I've stopped smoking for over two years. It's hard."
I doubt it's the first time the band's heard such a personal testimonial. Since their self-titled debut in 1996, full of hook-laden, guitar-driven rock songs with titles like "Teenage Angst" and "Nancy Boy," Placebo have spoken to and for disenfranchised misfits, taking a place previously occupied by bands like Depeche Mode and The Smiths (both of whom they've covered). In the band's oddball frontmen--the openly gay, towering Olsdal and the diminutive bisexual singer, Brian Molko, who's often mistaken for a woman--the pieces of the human puzzle that didn't fit finally found a puzzle of their own. A pretty picture with a sprinkle of glitter.
Then again, it's an understandable role for such a ragtag group to take. Though centered in the UK, only one member of the trio--drummer Steve Hewitt--is British. Molko hails from the US, but attended school with Olsdal, a native of Sweden, in Luxembourg. Perhaps it's their varied background that makes Placebo less inclined to stay in a niche. Unlike many European bands, Olsdal says, "We love to come to America and play." And certainly they do, having criss-crossed the country on several occasions. "We keep playing slightly bigger clubs, and most of the shows are sold out. We've built a good base."
Placebo isn't a band to rest on their laurels. While the sound on Black Market Music is recognizably theirs, it's not the same record as their first two discs. "The classical Placebo ingredients are there," Olsdal explains. "Heartbreak, punk energy, pop sensibility. But we produced it on our own, and we wanted to make a rock record. It's a more coherent album from start to finish, and while it sort of translates to being more accessible, it's really a coming together of the last six years. It's a consolidation of the songwriting on a sonic level."
While the sound was refined, the subject matter of Molko's lyrics expanded. It's gone from being strictly personal to looking at things like last year's May Day Riots ("Spite & Malice") and the struggles of the working class ("Slave to the Wage"). "If we had kept writing about the same things, I'd be worried," Olsdal says. "We're not the same people. When we did the first album, I was 19. It's less looking inward for pain and feeling sorry for ourselves, and is more opening our eyes and looking outside the window. We've always been open to politics and looking at what affects those around us--racism, homophobia, misogyny--and that's coming out more."
But what of the fans who got into Placebo more for what they said about what goes on in their lonely bedrooms than fighting in the streets? Are they still there? "It depends which row you're talking about. The front row definitely still has a goth element, a bisexual thing going down. Past the sixth row, though, it's anyone, really. We have a larger demographic--single mums with two kids, blind people, deaf people."
Funny that, given that Black Market Music still goes out with a song like "Peeping Tom," a self-loathing crawl across a piano about not really having anywhere else to go, of being on the outside. Still, it has the line, "you're the one who makes me feel much taller than you are," an apt description of Placebo's effect on their listeners.
Or, as Imp put it, "Like sugar pills, big and sweet, good to eat, and tough to beat."