Audiophilia, Thoughts

I Can’t Quit You: Placebo

Disclaimer: Placebo is another band on the I Can’t Quit You list that was particularly formative for me in the past, so while I’ll try to keep the post from rambling, my words just might get away from me.

I’d like to start the latest I Can’t Quit You entry by invoking the movie Velvet Goldmine.  Todd Haynes’ hybrid homage to glam rock & Oscar Wilde is equally loved & mocked & I’m sure that the two words alone affected whether readers are still here or not.  I’ll agree that Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn’t the most nuanced of actors and the dialogue based on lines taken from Oscar Wilde’s letters & works can sound over-dramatic.  But the reason I still watch & defend Velvet Goldmine is that at the movie’s heart there’s a story about growing up & finding your way through life in relationship to the music you worship.  Joyce Carol Oates articulates this too in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” when she writes about “the music that made everything so good. . . like music at a church service, it was something to depend on.”

It’s no coincidence I bring up Velvet Goldmine while talking about the band Placebo because they were in it, all tarted up with the rest of the glam rock boys and performing T Rex’s “20th Century Boy” for all their worth.  But, I also mention the movie because, as I was listening to Sleeping With Ghosts, I had to reflect on how my feelings had changed towards Placebo’s music, much like Christian Bale’s character Arthur looking back to his own past obsession with singer Brian Slade.

Let’s go back to that magical place I keep going to in these ICQY posts: high school.  “Pure Morning” was a break-thru hit in America in 1998.  The libertine spirit of the lyrics combined with lead singer Brian Molko’s androgynous look hit a nerve with me.  I had just discovered the works of Carson McCullers, Dorothy Allison & Oscar Wilde.  Taken together, these influences inspired a gender ambiguous phase that seemed like the only option for rebellion in the redneck, cornfed, Absolut-T-shirt-and-jeans-required environment of my high school.  I wanted badly to be different & Placebo’s defiantly queer, decadent attitude seemed like the answer.

Remembering that, I’m trying to figure out what happened by the time Sleeping With Ghosts came out in 2003.  I had eagerly bought it as soon as the disc had hit the shelves yet after a few weeks I’m certain I wasn’t playing it at all.  Listening to the CD now in 2012, I’ve realized I wasn’t quite ready for the mature, atmospheric sound.

Sleeping With Ghosts has a rainy day quality that would mix well with Portishead’s Dummy or Team Sleep’s self-titled debut.  The bratty, sometimes childish vibe of Placebo’s early CDs are gone but not forgotten.  The title track took me back to the past song “Lady of the Flowers.”  One is self-conscious and heavy with opaque, star-crossed lyrics.  The other sounds similar but the focus is broader with the lyrics examining the world around a pair of lovers, not the confusing motives between them.  The question isn’t “Did you even love me?” but “Can love exist despite the fucked-up state of the world?”

The overall maturity of this CD shouldn’t have surprised me though.  I also went back & listened to Placebo’s first three CDs and found some clues to the band’s constant move forward.  Lyrics go from “Nancy Boy”: “Alcoholic kind of mood/Lose my clothes, lose the lube/Searching for a piece of fun/Looking out for number one” to the later “Commercial for Levi.”  Molko lists many of the same temptations from “Nancy Boy” before singing “I understand the fascination/I’ve even been there once or twice or more/But if you don’t change your situation/Then you’ll die, don’t die.”  Musically, Placebo seemed to mature faster than the other bands I was listening to and my personal timeline didn’t exactly mesh.  My three years after high school were confusing, black with despair and marked with many unhappy choices.  Not a lot of things made sense, so it’s probably no surprise I didn’t find the same comfort in the music that I had before.

But strangely enough, many of the songs on Sleeping With Ghosts are clear-eyed and focus on reconciliation, so listening to the CD now is like a present from the past.  The album title is an apt description because as moody and reflective as these songs are, there are very real skeletons buried in the foundations of the music.  “This Picture” ends with Brian Molko singing “I can’t stop growing old” over the closing notes.  “Special Needs” is a fluid little song where a dark secret addresses to its keeper.  “Something Rotten” sounds like kin to Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building In There?”

With that said, Sleeping With Ghosts will probably be the only CD on the I Can’t Quit You list that will be given a reprieve.  Yes, the two of us are sticking together & I don’t regret the time that we’ve missed in the interim.  Much like Arthur in Velvet Goldmine, I had to leave the music behind to understand later just how much it meant to me.  The music is still so good, still something to depend on and remind me what I wanted when I was younger & more desperate.  Only now can I see how to be different & enjoy the variety in my life.  Ok, this is getting sappy, so let’s go out with one last song. . .

P.S.–Yes, I have delusions of teaching myself this song on guitar.  Thanks for the music, guys.

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