Originally, my idea for this article was simply to revisit an album I was obsessed with as a teenager and try to review it today as if I was listening for the first time. That proved impossible. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has read my articles, but music is a hugely nostalgic thing for me and as soon as I sat down to listen to Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing I was completely flooded with memories. This was an album that came to me in the very formative years of my life, when I was fourteen or fifteen, and it was, in many ways, pretty different to the Oasis/Blur/Stereophonics/Manics beige-fest that was making up the majority of my music listening during those years. Yes, it was another white guitar band (my love for hip-hop would begin to develop later in the same period) – but Brian Molko was something very different to Liam Gallagher and Kelly Jones, and his music was saying something a little more real than ‘you’re my Wonderwall.’ I don’t know if I knew any of this then, but I do know that when I first heard this album it was a long while before I listened to anything else.
As with all music discoveries at that time, I took it to my friends. As a fifteen-year-old lad who was desperate for people to think he was cool, there was definitely some trepidation in taking this makeup clad man who sang about his emotions to the lads. But there needn’t have been. It was a popular choice and became one of the many albums on rotation during our weed-soaked sessions in my bedroom or my friend’s garage. We attended V Festival every year at that point and I have a strong memory of standing in the rain at V99, moshing with my mates as Brian let out a furious rendition of ‘Pure Morning.’
One other memory of this album is particularly clear to me. Around this time I was spending most of my days with one friend who I would later have a massive fallout with. I still haven’t spoken to him to this day. But at the ages of fourteen and fifteen we were always at each other’s houses, trying to get with girls who were best friends so we could spend even more time together, playing so much pool that we almost convinced ourselves we would one day be good enough to graduate to the snooker world championships. For reasons that are no longer clear to me, we were sitting in his room one day and we decided to scrape away a load of his wallpaper so that we could write song lyrics on his wall in black marker. The first lyrics we wrote were from ‘You Don’t Care About Us’:
‘You’re too complicated/We should separate it/You’re just confiscated/You’re exasperated/This degeneration/Mental masturbation/Think I’ll leave it all behind/Save this bleeding heart of mine.’
Why? If memory serves me, I think one of us had gone through one of those searing heartbreaks that only a fifteen-year-old would understand and we thought these words were talking directly to us. But maybe not. Maybe we just thought it was cool that the word masturbation was in a song. Whatever the reason, these memories of Without You I’m Nothing remind me that, for a short time at least, this album spoke to me in the rare way that only very few albums had by that point.
But, inevitably, it fell totally out of my rotation. It had maybe been two decades since I’d listened to it when I put it on last week with the idea of throwing together some kind of article around it. So what do I think of the thing now? Well, after a fair few listens I am surprised to say that I think it holds up very well. Even if you never got majorly into Placebo I find it hard to imagine that anyone who was my age in 1998/99 can hear ‘Pure Morning’ without some emotions being stirred. Nostalgia aside, though, this is a superb piece of songwriting that hasn’t really dated – I’m not sure I ever thought the lyrics made much sense and they still don’t, but it’s a sweeping epic of a pop song that deserves classic status. Pure nonsense poetry but none of the magic has evaporated.
The two other big singles – ‘You Don’t Care About Us’ and ‘Every You And Every Me’ stand up pretty strongly too. Indie pop bangers. And songs like the title song and ‘My Sweet Prince’ show that Placebo deserve to be remembered as a serious band who made interesting and involving music that was able to operate on several different levels. The likes of ‘Brick Shithouse’ and ‘Scared of Girls’ don’t hum with quite the same menace as I thought they did when I was fifteen, though – but that is probably mainly because I have experienced so much different music since then that makes Placebo seem tame by comparison. That’s not a negative, though – tame is good at times.
I was also interested, on this revisit, to see a through line from Placebo to some music that I love today. I had never linked the two in my mind before, but there are parts of Without You I’m Nothing that remind me of the music of The Twilight Sad. So while I thought I had largely left behind their sound, it is intriguing to see that elements of this music I so adored in my teens is still present in my current favourites.
But will I now add Placebo back into my regular listening rotation? I’m not sure. This was a really valuable and enjoyable exercise, but I think the love and nostalgia I have for the album and the time I loved it will never be matched by any satisfaction I can get from it today. I might stick those three singles on a playlist, though. But in reality, when I want some snarling guitar lines and epic choruses I’ll probably turn to The Twilight Sad first, while fondly remembering Brian Molko and the time I ruined my ex best friend’s wall with a black marker.
Words by Fran Slater