Placebo - Without You I'm Nothing

BRIAN MOLKO CAN'T BE WHAT he's not. He might claim he was burned by the accusations of misogyny and drug abuse and sexual indiscretion that dogged Placebo's progress last time around, but you can bet your bottom dollar he doesn't feel too bad about it now. Likewise, his claims for his band's new-found sensitivity. One listen to 'Without You I'm Nothing', a record where every note is shot through with his real character, and you'll realise they can be taken with the pinch of salt they rightly deserve.

You see, at heart, Brian Molko is quintessentially American in outlook. Fiercely ambitious, unafraid of fame and desperate to be noticed, you just know that he'll do whatever it takes to fulfil his ambitions (you only have to look at his burgeoning friendship with Marilyn Manson to realise that he's already got the US market in his sights). He might have no soul - just look at his steely green eyes glaring out from the sleeve - but who cares? That's what makes Placebo what they are: a filthy and enthralling hive of dubious excess. 'Without You I'm Nothing' proves that from the moment you slip it into your CD player.

Molko's skill lies in his inherent grasp of what makes for an exciting pop record. He might cite Sonic Youth as his prime influence, but they have never made a record that's come close to matching the muscular force of this album. The sheer clarity and power of the sounds here frequently take your breath away: the cranked-out guitar line of 'Pure Morning', the rumbling fuzz of 'Allergic (To Thoughts Of Mother Earth)', the strung-out, mechanical beauty of 'My Sweet Prince', they're all fantastic moments, glossed and fattened by Steve Osbourne's amazing production and strongly reminiscent of both Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and Hole's 'Celebrity Skin'.

That's what Placebo are pushing towards all the time: the perfect radio hit. These aren't songs that need to be studied too carefully. Whatever Molko says about the vulnerability and self-criticism of the lyrics on this record, the overall effect hardly reeks of repentance or fragility, the songs here are too confident for that, too sure of both where they're going and how they're going to get there.

All of which means we get the same narrow themes that have fixated Molko from the start. So, the sly references to heroin ("Close up the hole in my vein/Me and my valuable friend can fix all the pain away") collide with all the whores and "mental masturbation" that Brian can imagine. And as the 'Pure Morning' fiasco proved, the last thing you ever want to do with a Placebo song is concentrate too hard on the lyrics. Even 'Burger Queen', an apparently autobiographical account of his time in Luxembourg, is awash with flagging erections and goth junkies, a fact that almost puts you off a) what a beautiful song it is, and b) that it's almost a note-for-note re-write of Altered Images' 'I Could Be Happy'.

That aside, though, the rest of this album is astonishing. Everything you liked about the first record is here (the coiled riffs, epic distortion and careering momentum), but more so. 'Brick Shithouse', for instance, is a carbon copy of '36 Degrees', but swathed in radio static and pumped full of steroids. Everywhere else the tunes are better, the guitars are louder, it's more intense, more scuffed-up, more out-of-control and in the case of the ballads, more moving. It's no radical departure or change of style, just a big-budget Hollywood refinement of everything that made their debut so successful.

A thrilling record, then, made by freaks, for freaks. Just don't expect to leave with your soul intact.


James Oldham