As many of our masks start to literally and figuratively come off again, we are entering a new moment of pandemic nostalgia, of the desire for a time when our personal—and geopolitical—lives didn’t feel as complicated as they do now. With their eighth album and first LP in nine years, Placebo’s Never Let Me Go is a practice in nostalgia for the future, of looking—and sounding—back to the past to do something different in the present and, hopefully, alter the state of things yet to come. This engaging with nostalgia to ultimately turn away from it begins on “Forever Chemicals,” the album’s opening track. After an instrumental opening of some crunchy synths and drum machines, the guitars come in before Brian Molko delivers some of the best Placebo lyrics so far, singing, “The memory drugs make memory snow/ I think but I forget,” closing the first verse with “And I can’t get out of bed, SHIT.” As he moves onto “My memory body, my memory skin” in the second verse, some warped synths enter the mix, time warping us back to the past that we are all supposedly craving for in the moment—but also, in perverting the sound waves, performing how our memories rearrange events (and feelings) in waves of nostalgia. “And it’s all good when nothing matters,” Molko sings as the guitars roar in for the chorus, later sardonically adding, “And with friends like these/ Who needs enemies?” for the amplified bridge. As the opening track for Never Let Me Go, “Forever Chemicals” sets the tone, pulling forward the mid-90s alternative (with a twist) sounds that first made Placebo famous while simultaneously questioning our desire to live in a moment in time except the exact one we’re in now. Stepping into their newfound roles as queer elders of alternative/glam rock, Molko and multi-instrumentalist Stefan Olsdal mix synths and guitars, love songs and political commentary, and vulnerability and fortitude, to try to make sense of the mess of our current moment.
To understand the power of Never Let Me Go, you first need to understand the power of Placebo, a band that has always been critically misunderstood (especially in America)—and, as a result, have become the musical guardians of misfits everywhere looking to rock and fuck with gender and sexual norms. Charging onto the alternative rock scene with their self-titled debut in 1996, Placebo were less Britpop and more Bowie, with a disproportionate amount of media attention going to frontman Brian Molko’s penchant for wearing makeup and “women’s” clothes. For their second album, Without You I’m Nothing, Placebo made an uncharacteristic splash in American mainstream rock with “Every Me Every You,” a single that also appeared on the Cruel Intentions soundtrack. By the time of their third album, the trip hop- and hip hop-influenced Black Market Music, Placebo were deemed “important” enough to start covering, with Pitchfork ripping the album to shreds in their first review of the band. On fourth album Sleeping With Ghosts, Placebo went electronic, playing around with—and integrating—guitars and synths in a way they would perfect on fifth album Meds, which, at the moment of its release, (British) critics hailed as their swan song. After O.G. drummer Steve Hewitt left the band after Meds, the band released two largely forgettable albums, Battle for the Sun and Loud Like Love, both of which had good singles but not much substance in between. After recording an episode of MTV Unplugged in London in 2015 and doing a forced multi-year 20th anniversary tour, Placebo then disappeared. Watching from the outside as a fan of their music since age 16 (I am now 34), it was unclear whether or not we’d hear from them again.
Like many of the mid-90s alternative bands that I would grow to love, I came into Placebo belatedly, reaching back for their 90s material from the early 00s of my high school years. First hearing one of their songs (either “Sleeping with Ghosts” or “The Bitter End”) on an Urban Outfitters sampler in 2003 or 2004, I came on board during the Sleeping With Ghosts era (which, now that I think about it, makes Placebo the first synth-y band that I really loved). In some ways, this wasn’t out of place with what was going on with my friend group, The Pips, in high school. We considered ourselves the indie rock connoisseurs of our high school—and, eventually, this turned into one of my friends slipping my ripped copies of the most recent Sleater-Kinney and PJ Harvey albums, both of whom are now my most listened to artists of all time. As old souls in indie rock teenage bodies, this turn towards 90s alternative was organic, the next step in our music listening journeys. But, for me, there also was another layer. In the second half of high school, when things got even worse than they had already been for me at our all girls Catholic high school, the lines on “The Bitter End” that Molko sings on the outro (“From the time we intercepted/ Feels a lot like suicide/ Slow and sad, grown inside us/ Arouse and see that you’re mine/ (See you at the bitter end)”) both recalled a friend’s narrowly avoided suicide attempts and how it felt to be a protoqueer person in a four-year-long period of deep depression in my life. Alongside starting to hang out more with my older cousin and his friends who were 3-5 years older than me, listening to Placebo within a context of discovering mid-90s alternative confirmed something that I had already been starting to sense about myself: that I felt older than my years. So, while it was the Sleeping With Ghosts singles that pulled me into Placebo, it was working backwards to Black Market Music, Without You I’m Nothing, and Placebo that really made the band feel like my own. During the second half of high school, Placebo often felt like the band—and the people—getting me through what was still one of the darkest periods of my life, when I was depressed without a diagnosis, never mind any self-care plan for healing from ongoing trauma.
Nevertheless, it would be a few years still before I would get to see Placebo in concert for the first time. In fall 2006, the band did a huge world tour around Meds, stopping in Philly to play the behemoth (yet shitty sound setup) that is Electric Factory. Although it was sophomore year in college and I had many friends who liked the same or similar music to me, I could not find anyone who would want to go to a Placebo concert with me, so I went by myself. I remember getting there at doors and there already being a huge line, so I ended up further in the back than I would have preferred to be. But once I was inside, it didn’t really matter where I was standing, only that I was there. I don’t remember much about the specifics of that show, just that they played most of Meds, along with some of the many songs from their early catalog where copious drug use is both a metaphor and a literalization. As someone who has never done any drugs that are still criminalized in my current home state and is not really a substances person in general, the drug references in Placebo’s songs have never quite landed with me in the ways that they’ve landed with some other fans. However, for all the ways Placebo’s songs are about addiction, they are also about depression—and, at age 19, that was already something I understood very well. More than any other band I’ve listened to, Placebo takes the topic of depression head on, not only lyrically grappling with it but affectively recreating the atmosphere of it. Similar to their performance of the song seven years later, Placebo’s performance of “Post Blue” at the Electric Factory is a sing-a-long moment, with all of us screaming out, “It’s between you and me!” at the end of each verse. As Molko gets to the line the last time, he becomes silent, lets the audience sing it, and then smiles before roaring back in with both guitar and voice for the first half of the chorus: “Bite the hand that feeds/ Tap the vein that bleeds,” a material manifestation of the swinging highs and lows of actual depression. (These chorus lines always recall the darker moments in my kitchen during bouts of depression, which I always shake myself out of.)
The next/last time I saw Placebo was when I was in grad school at NYU, in fall 2013. Once again, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go to a Placebo show with me, so I again went by myself. Learning from last time in Philly, I went to Terminal 5 four hours early to get in line for the show—and, even then, was already the 20th person in line. Once inside, I ran to the left side of the stage, positioning myself 20 feet back from where Brian Molko would end up standing. When Molko emerged for the night, he had shoulder length hair and a fitted black button down and jeans on, an outfit that would soon become a staple for me once I moved onto grad school at UT-Austin. Standing that close to him was like standing that close to Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker; it was standing in the presence of someone with whom I had grown up with, albeit in their performances of self on the form of the recorded album. Once again, my memories of that night are blurry, sans for when the band (surprisingly) did “Special K” early on—and we all sang along, loudly, just as we had done in our bedrooms by ourselves many times before. After Molko sings the second verse opening lines of “I’ll describe the way I feel/ You’re my new Achilles heel,” he then raises up his guitar-playing hand as he screams into the mic, “Come on!” Right on cue, all of us sing the backing vocals of “Ba da da da da da da/ Ba da da da da da da.” When he signals for us again after the next two lines, we sing the backing vocals again, only even louder this time. Everyone then sings in unison for the chorus: “No hesitation, no delay/ You come on just like Special K…” Here, the drug and the lover are synonymous, both sources of addiction that can bring about a high—or can become deadly. In addition to songs about addiction and depression, Placebo’s songs are also very much about love. Hearing this song live one year out of a brief but intense relationship (that would completely open up my romantic life following it), “Special K” hit in a particular way that night, staying with me forever. In these live moments, I would never forget what it felt like to be in the same live concert room as Placebo.
More than any of their previous albums, Never Let Me Go captures the feeling of being in the room with Placebo, of sharing the same affective atmosphere as you sift through the shit together. For my fourth listening of the album the Saturday after it was released, I put on my headphones and crawled under a blanket, just like I might have done in my childhood room during high school. After feeling reactivated about a situation I’ve been in and out of really struggling with since the beginning of the calendar year, I needed something familiar—but also something that was maybe going to help propel me forward. It was on this fourth and most attentive listen that I started to pick up on all the synth intricacies on the album, realizing that what I had in the past interpreted as guitar effects were, in fact, just Placebo being a synth-y rock band. But this is, after all, exactly what nostalgia is: as we learn new things about ourselves, we look back at our herstories, rewriting how people—or books or music or whatever else—came to mean something to us through the lens of where we are at this moment. At this point in their career, it could have been so easy for Placebo to be nostalgically complacent; at this point in the pandemic, it could be so easy for all of us (especially in the Western world) to be complacent in this way as well. What Placebo challenge us to do, what they have always challenged us to do (with varying approaches—and degrees of “success”—on each album) is to question how the world around us came to be how it is, to peel back the layers that force us into categories—and histories—of identity, nation, and capitalism. Like everything else in their repertoire, they embrace nostalgia to blow it up, to bring people into an idea that they think they know what’s going on—and then to push the conversations, and our self-reflections, deeper. For all of these reasons, Never Let Me Go is their biggest triumph so far. This is Placebo 2.0.
In order to get to the next versions of ourselves, we have to first sit with the versions that came before that, to sit with the nostalgia without living our lives entirely in the space of wishing for the past in the present. Three days after the release of Never Let Me Go, I boarded what turned into a late night flight to Philadelphia, making my first visit back to the city (during the school year) in six years. With a close friend from grad school now working at Penn and a tenure track job to celebrate, the trip was intended as a victory lap, a returning back to the place where this journey first began. As I would tell my undergraduate mentor while sitting back in her office that Wednesday, this wasn’t supposed to be my path; while my family was upper middle class and cultured, we tended to go to Rutgers on scholarship, so we could graduate debt-free and start enjoying the material fruits of our labors immediately upon graduation. Looking back now, falling into queer and feminist theory while at Penn doesn’t seem surprising at all, especially considering the crash courses on queerness and androgyny that I was already getting from both Placebo and Sleater-Kinney in their music. It’s more that, at the time, I did not realize that either of these things was a possibility within the scope of the academy. Coming from a liberal enough but still quite religious high school, taking philosophically-oriented courses in folklore and political science and English at Penn was a portal into a new world—and to kinds of cultural capital—far away from my considerably cultured upper middle class Italian American family. Penn is where people went to be their best selves, mostly in a neoliberal sense—but, if you were lucky and fell into a different pocket, in a more subversive way as well. For me, that would mean queer and feminst theory at Penn, sound and Black studies at NYU, and affect and American studies at UT-Austin. Sometimes, as is the case with Placebo, we become spokespeople for the things that the people we grew up with might not have expected us to, making the roots of where we came from before all the more important.
For me, my time at Penn—and all the changes that it would bring to my life—began during a summer program there in between my junior and senior years in high school. While I knew it would likely be the first time (minus the occasional English and history class in high school) where I would feel intellectually challenged, I had no idea how it would begin to plant seeds for new and radical kinds of intimacy in my life, across shared lines of queerness and/or feminism. In this moment, the Summer at Penn program was life-changing since it put me into contact with fellow nerds from the greater NYC area, where a disproportionate amount of the program participants were from. Two friends in particular immediately changed my life. The first was a queer friend who liked a lot of the same music as me. We became fast friends that summer—and, once we went back home for the school year, NYC (or Jersey shore!) concert buddies, including the 2005 Tegan & Sara show where I first admitted (to myself) that I was queer. (I will never forget the way that this friend said, “Wow, there are a lot of dykes at this show!” that night.) Alongside our concert going, he was one of the first people I talked about being queer with. The second friend was someone that I felt instantly drawn to, first intellectually, then emotionally, and finally physically (and who himself later came out). He was the first person I ever experienced attraction with in that way—and it, in retrospect, paved the way for my relationship with my Brooklyn girlfriend and friendships seeped in intimacy. Once back home for senior year, he and I would meet up at the Madison, NJ Starbucks close to every Sunday night, continuing the conversation throughout the week in a midnight hour AIM conversation. We would then attend neighboring schools in college, staying in touch until we fell out of touch after sophomore year—but then reconnected again in Austin close to a decade later.
As a college student, Penn was the place where I was able to fully step into my queerness, even as I was also at odds with what I already understood to be (in the late 00s, at least) a homonormative gay community. As with my life today, I often found a more racially diverse—and queer—community away from so-called gay spaces, falling in with a group of music nerds (who all met over Myspace before even getting to college) that I went to endless shows with: Broken Social Scene, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Metric, Explosions in the Sky… Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of my junior year, I clarified my queerness in the classroom, building on the work in two folklore courses with a beloved teacher turned friend during my first two years at Penn in two courses that fall 2007 semester: 1) Queer Politics, Queer Communites (which was taught by an affect theorist, no less) and 2) Feminist Political Thought (which was taught by the political theorist who would quickly become my undergrad mentor). While Queer Politics, Queer Communities was a who’s who of all of us active in the LGBTQ community at the time, Feminist Political Thought was a class of all women (once the two men in the room dropped out after the first day) being smart together—which, after a terrible time in all girls Catholic high school, was the first time I felt safe in class of all people who shared my gender identity. I always call fall 2007 the semester that changed everything, connecting me to the mentors who would never let me give up on going to grad school (which is why it was so special to present at a grad student conference back at Penn in April 2016). There would be no going back to how I used to see myself after that semester—and that has only continued to be the case as I’ve moved around (five times!) in my adult life and grown into new versions of myself.
Then, in September 2011, when I was still hanging around Penn post-graduation, I attended a New Directions in Queer and Feminist Studies symposium where both my queer theory and feminist theory professors—and, unbenowst to me at the time, my future Ph.D. mentor—were a part of. During the panel, I sat next to someone who is now a dear friend (but who I would first get to know through sort of seeing her long distance beginning in the new calendar year)—who, when I looked over at her laptop, saw that she had my website up and had been reading my blog. At one month before I would end up moving back to NYC to start working at NYU, the event ended up being a saying good-bye to Penn party of sorts for me. Although I had not yet interviewed for the NYU job, I had a strong feeling that I would get it—and, just as surely, that I would do Masters work at NYU at some point after that. After the symposium, we all went to the patio at the back of the Women’s Center, where the wine flowed freely and we were a bit looser than we might have been otherwise. At one point in the conversation, my undergrad mentor suddenly declared, “I saved Christine from Wharton!” While she said it jokingly, it actually wasn’t a joke at all. Although it’s not the language I would have used at the time, I think I learned early on, from sitting in office hours for hours with this mentor, what the intimacy between students and teachers could be—and, once I was on the other side of it, how to draw clear boundaries to minimize the blurriness that happens in the space of what my political theorist Ph.D. mentor would later call “the erotics of sharing knowledge.” That night, when I gave my undergrad mentor a hug good-bye for the last time for 4.5 years, she quietly said, “I’m not cool enough to be doing what you’re doing,” already seeing what was to come when I began my graduate work at NYU Performance Studies.
This is all to say that everything runs—and blurs through—Penn for me, a space where intimacy has always been porous, in a way that renders all labels for relationality insufficient. This could not have been more true when multiple of my worlds collided at the aforementioned grad student conference here in April 2016, where my queer theory professor, undergrad mentor, and the two people with whom I’ve probably felt the most intensity in my life (briefly) shared the same bubble. Sitting with that all last week was a lot but also healing, especially as I processed where my relationships with everyone from that conference moment are at this point. When I look back at what was going on with you last semester (which, in many ways, began right here), I realize how much no descriptor can possibly capture what you meant to me—or what I was already imagining into the future. All I do know is that it happened and it was real—and that it has changed me forever, in both its intensity and its intimacy. On Placebo’s “This Is You Wanted,” the “you” is ambiguous, is a pronoun that seems to cut across two people who were once more entwined but are now unraveling. “Hey hey hey/ This is what you wanted/ And you got it…/ Your expectations were way too fucking high/ Now you’re angry, frustrated/ You’ve created your own special hell,” Molko sings in the charged fourth verse. (Is he singing to me—or singing to you?) When I first listened to Molko singing the first verse line “This is just how it is,” I originally misheard it as “This is just how it ends.” Like so many of Placebo’s songs and the relationships they describe, the line sits in a space of in-betwee-ness, where queerness is the atmosphere and the intellectual, physical, and emotional entangle—and amplify—one another. Sitting here six years later, I feel across what seems like the longest six miles in the world to you, the latest instance of us being so close yet also so far apart. This is just how it is, another part of this place that I carry with me now, even as I miss you.
What does it mean to not live in nostalgia? What does it do to re-emerge, (nearly) ten years later? As Dave Beech writes in his review of Never Let Me Go in The Line of Best Fit, “A lot has happened in that time, and the world is a very different place to what it was. Unsurprisingly, Placebo also feel like a different band.” Near the end of the review, he circles back to this, writing, “Never Let Me Go feels like an astute observation of our current post-pandemic social climate, as if the current global narrative has finally caught up to that of Placebo’s internal monologue.” The band are the most on the nose about this on “Try Better Next Time,” where Molko sings, “At the core of the earth, it’s too hot to breathe/ There’s nothing much to eat and everybody leaves,” later adding, “And we can grow fins, go back in the water.” Although the music is some of the most chipper of Placebo’s career, the lyrics are morbid, a combination that brings to mind Blinky, the nuclear fish from The Simpsons, when Molko sings about people “grow[ing] fins” to survive a burning planet. In many ways, the song circles back around to “Allergic (To Thoughts of Mother Earth)” from the band’s second album Without You I’m Nothing, where Molko sings, “Any means in your horizon, every mink walks two by two/ We gamble to be born again, you know I never wanted to.” As part of what he has called “a kind of environment versus religion song,” Molko delivers the lines in a high-pitched voice over a cacophony of screeching synthesizers and guitars. As the seventh—and midway—song on Never Let Me Go, “Try Better Next Time” both sounds the alarm in the current moment and points back to how many times we’ve (or, rather, our governments) have ignored the threat of climate crisis before this. It also reinforces the connections to far right extremism, with Molko singing, “Now I’m bored/ Of your caucasian Jesus” on “Fix Yourself,” the closing track for the album.
However, these songs are also emblematic of a theme of crisis throughout the album, a concept that Placebo has explored through songs about depression, addiction, and love throughout their entire career. In discussing “Post Blue” from Meds, Molko muses, “We’ve always written love songs, but our lyrics are more twisted. We talk about impossible love, complicated love, destructive love. A love as destructive as drugs.” Above anything, Placebo’s songs are love songs, songs about intimacy and connection—and of the internal and external barriers that get in the way of both. “Surrounded by Spies,” the first single for the album (and one of Placebo’s best singles of their 27 years as a band), is a song that is explicitly about surveillance society but is implicitly about the struggle to connect under pandemic capitalism. The song begins with a subtle looping synth that, with the drum machine that soon enters, slowly crescendos up over the course of the song. “This search for meaning is killing me,” Molko sings over and over again in the first verse, before proceeding to chronicle different instances of surveillance in his life. The song has no chorus, just couplets of lines that are repeated two—or even four—times to create verses of sorts. This changes suddenly near the end of the song, when Molko delivers the emotional crux of the song when he sings “Where are you now when I need you the most?” over and over a cascade of synths and drum machines. Every time he asks the question, Olsdal in the backing vocals sing-screams “Shut up!” Every time that Molko thinks he’s found an opening out of the song, Olsdal, as the stand in for the techno-capital environment, comes back in to shut it right down. Is intimacy even possible here?
Nevertheless, we try to find one another in the ongoing pandemic, in both friendship and romance. In the beginning of March, I had an experience with a new-ish group of academic and artist friends that clarified a lot about how I was feeling about trying to find emotional intimacy in our current state of pandemic capitalism. We had just gone to see the Lifes exhibition at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and had gone to a dive bar after to unpack the art and performances together. I don’t even remember how I started talking about my (lack of a) dating life in this context, but it was nevertheless heavy on my mind and in my heart. After receiving a bunch of ghosting/dropping out on the dating apps, getting attention from poly people who dating or fucking would place me in undesirable poly situations, and worrying about heading towards another romantic friendship situation, I was feeling dejected and even a bit hopeless about meeting people in LA with whom I intellectually, emotionally, and romantically connected. After one person in this friend group told me I was “too earnest” for LA and another person suggested that I just fuck some people to ride this out, I started to cry at this table of people that I was only just starting to get to know. (No hard feelings to either friend at this point.) As my friend who had originally brought me into the group put his arm around me, I, still crying, whispered, “I just want to be myself.” “And that’s exactly what you should be,” he responded. Ultimately, to break down and then reassert myself in the company of this group of people reaffirmed that I knew exactly what I wanted (intimacy through meaningful romantic encounters)—but also what I needed (physical intimacy and touch within these kinds of encounters, which the last time I really had was with my abusive ex two years ago).
I continued to feel through this during my spring break week in Philly, where so much of my intimate life has at least passed through at this point. I thought about it as I felt my first—and longest—romantic relationship during my early 20s hanging around like a ghost in the air, always faintly in the atmosphere but not a big part of my psyche at this point. I thought about this some more as I met up with my girlfriend from ten years ago, acutely feeling her presence long after our biannual one-hour-long coffee. For my entire adult life, these two parts of my life have yet to link up: I’ve had long-term relationships that I’ve grown out of and I’ve had short but intense relationships that I wished could have lasted longer, but never both at the same time. (In some senses, I have been waiting (to different degrees) for 16 years for both of these parts of my romantic life to link up.) And, overall, most of my adult dating life has been spent in short-term dating, romantic friendships, or abstaining from dating altogether. As a result, I hate getting the questions “How long were you together?” or “How long were you friends (first)?” when people inquire into my dating life. To me, these are always the wrong questions, as they equate length of time and/or relationship status with the depth of connection and intimacy. At the same time, I am also absolutely exhausted from existing in this liminal space so much, so perhaps that is some of my frustration at this point as well. And so, as I listen to Placebo’s Never Let Me Go, I viscerally remember how hard it is to exist on a spectrum of things over an extended period of time, whether that’s fighting people about my pronouns or waiting for people to be ready for romance. Writing this at the beginning of April, I feel the weight of (some of) this expansiveness on which I pride myself starting to also crush me.
On Never Let Me Go, the third track “Hugz” takes the duality of intimacy to its visceral extreme. “A hug is just another way of hiding your face,” Molko sings at the beginning, middle, and end of the song. After the first repetitions of these lines, the drums and guitars blast into the song from the background and the synth keeps the warped bass line as Molko moves into the vulnerable yet heavy-hitting chorus of “Don’t wanna see myself/ Just wanna conceal myself.” (On Genius, one user commented that the song is “The best synth I’ve heard in my whole fucking life” while Mick McStarkey, in a review for Far Out, calls the song “Molko and Olsdal’s best guitar work in years.”) After listening to the album a handful of times, it is these lyrics that most stay with me, that loop (with the melody) over and over again in my head. As Molko says of the song, “A hug is just another way of hiding your face. It’s that kind of duality that’s interesting to me, you know, an act which is meant to be intimate also, it’s about hiding yourself.” To be intimate is to show yourself—and, depending on the response from the other person(s), can lead you right back into your shell, defense mechanisms on full blast. Although this song is about the duality of intimacy, I think that it could just as readily be about the duality of nostalgia, arguably the overall theme for the album as a whole. Sometimes, nostalgia means looking back and feeling that you do not, that you cannot, continue to exist in such a precarious mode of existence forever. Sometimes, nostalgia means listening back and feeling what you have to change, before the emotional weight of who you once were (but can no longer be) literally crushes you. After three years on the job market, I am still learning how to be grounded (again). 18 years since I first started to listen to them, Placebo are, once again, a rock.