Placebo – Without you I’m nothing (1998)

When I was in highschool, liking Placebo must have been one of the least cool things one could do, for some reason. At least that’s how I remember it – there was nobody I knew who would have claimed to be a fan, although most people knew about them. I think this has something to do with the way their songs deal with the feelings and relationships one might be overwhelmed by around that age. Placebo is a band of subtlety, elegance and refinement, it’s a band of bitter-sweet detachment and sad, knowledgeable irony. I “discovered” them when I was in my first year of college, and I suppose, by then, I was ready to empathize and understand.

Source: musicaonline.org

Sometimes it’s hard to walk the line between proper review and that form of listener response criticism I’m trying to engage in on this blog. Placebo is one of the bands which make tracing that line especially difficult, because it feels like there’s so much personal baggage and so much meaning bubbling under the smooth skin of these songs, on the one hand, and so much substance painted on their long, mother-of-pearl fingernails on the other, that there’s always the temptation of either turning this into a quaint little journal entry, or a critical tour-de-force in their defense. The glam element in their music and stage presence was apparently reason enough for them to be thought of as rather insubstantial by my old friends, a sort-of pretentious, theatrical little musical tantrum. And while I see how one could get that impression at times, I think it’s only half of the story. Placebo made me realize the difficulty and drama of creating an image for yourself, the fundamental sadness and protection of projecting a crafted, holographic mask a hair’s width from your “real” face, especially at that moment when you don’t quite realize where the real you ends and the made-up one starts. Placebo was also one of the very few bands whose lyrics started following me around and truly felt like they were bringing meaning to the music in the first place, not merely as an afterthought, as my – admittedly wretched – normal way of listening would have suggested.

This music is beautiful in a determined, willful way, as if there’s never been more at stake, and beauty is the only option left, the only safety possible, with a blurry, treacherous margin of error. The feeling I get while immersing myself in this album is akin to being a fetus, curled up inside this large, incomprehensible machine that is my body, as vulnerable and raw as right before birth, desperately trying to move just the right way, to look just the right way, to turn on the perfect lights in my eyes as to get a certain reaction, to connect. Sometimes it feels like I’m dealing with people who really have grown into themselves, other times it feels like everyone around is just the same – cold, tiny, naked and scared to death, and yet maddeningly comfortable, stuck in our niche, occasionally getting the controls just right and realizing this simple, shuddering truth about each-other. It’s hard to find the words, but it feels like this is some of the most human… humane… music I’ve ever heard, inescapably sincere but only between the lines, remarkably intelligent but always self-deprecating, levitating in the tension between revealing and hiding everything.

“Glam Nirvana” was the term I heard about Placebo which stuck with me for the longest time, as a sort of double-entendre riddle. One can look at it as a derogatory term, but I came to see it’s far from that. Where Nirvana projected raw frustration, helplessness and self-hatred, Placebo leave me with this lingering feeling of loving yourself as if you were a stranger, nurturing this affection with a pathetic tint, with unspoken, restrained and soft elegance, in an intimate cocoon. It would seem that I just can’t take Placebo lightly, excuse the pun. Being a band I grew up with, in the sense that I would listen to them most when my entire world was changing around me, along with my expectations of it and of myself, I guess I’m in a position where I can’t simply distance myself from all the jumbled memories and emotions which come flooding in. But I think there’s something to be said about their ability to incite such thoughts and to link with such powerful, shaping events. Growing pain and Placebo go hand in hand for me.

I’m not sure why I ended up writing about Placebo under the assumption that most readers wouldn’t like them in the first place. I suppose it’s because of the lingering memory of the reaction they got from everyone when I was in highschool. In any case, I hope I’m wrong. If not, then I hope I’ve made a compelling case. This record is truly mesmerizing. Enjoy!

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