On The New Age‘s debut full-length album, Placebo, the Ohio based quartet have focused their energies upon ‘familial struggles and drug abuse’. Vocalist Justin Cotton has shared that the dark subject matter has surrounded him his entire life. In his words, “‘Placebo’ in essence is the way that we, as people, use substances to fill a void; whether it be drinking, drugs, or careers.” He considers these things ‘false fillers’; temporary and fake solutions to the void we’re trying to fill.
With that as introduction, it’s already apparent that this collection of music is not going to consist of light and fluffy background tunes. The twelve tracks of Placebo felt owed an introspective and curious ear, as I explored the album track-by-track.
On the album’s opener “Wicked Friends”, piano and a grooving pushing bass is given focus. Layers of sound combine as the voice joins in, with guitar following its own thread. The track is emotionally moving and a choir of voices and drum pulses add to the weight of what’s being shared.
“Wicked Friends” seems to watch someone head toward their doom, while desperately striving to make life better for them. The vibe is explosive frustration that can’t break through, with beefy riffs, crashing beats, and melodic curiosity via piano.
Already at this first track, with so many elements combined here, I can’t help but think that any reviewer in my shoes who tries to understand this through the lens of genre or comparative bands/songs, or song pace may struggle. The ever-changing tracks require a curious ear to play along where we’re being lead by The New Age; to listen to this dynamic story that ruthlessly uses sound to express itself.
The previously released single “Temper” follows, and muffled melody expands into a sense of alarm, bolstered by exceptionally sexy guitarwork. With focus given to voice, beginning genuinely before ripping with severity, we see a shade of the ‘familiar issues’ in this track relating to anger and temper being used by someone to get their way.
The desperate quest in seeking for this to stop is at the desire to allow the family and home to ‘breathe again’. It seems like turning perspectives, where we’re at times in the shoes of the aggressor (“I want something, you give it to me”), and at others being an observer (“Oh no, here he goes”), painting a broad picture of the experience. Compassionately it’s recognised that the tempered needs something, but that they also need for him to improve.
A driven chorus holds its breath hoping for change, with dark riffs and echoed vocals at the bridge reflecting a sense of voices heard from another room or even an out-of-body handling of the situation. Morphing sound effects, light beats, and a looping melody lead us into spoken word, of reminiscence and hope. Gritty riffs and a scream as “Temper” comes to an end feels like a raw last ditch hope.
Third on the album, “Straight Face” starts with a gorgeous orchestral sound. A whispered quality to the vocals offer up a tender and connective feeling. This builds into a stronger sound with a sense of fingers tearing at the ache felt. The track feels like reflecting upon older times, as though moving through a family home and fingers running over textures, eyes falling upon photos. Intense frustrations feel contained within and can’t be expressed, having to encase them and not allow them free. The feeling is “There’s so much to me that you can’t see. Won’t see. I’m screaming on the inside, trying to cope and fight this battle I never knew I’d need to.” Needless to say, it hits hard.
There’s a piano focus to the third track “Hunger”, but this is soon lost in riffs, electronic effects, and orchestral sounds. Unexpected rhythms craft an angular dance of vulnerability, with a sense of unnerving emptiness reflected by zaps and other effects. At times it’s too quiet, too dead, almost like going into a darker mental space out of grip of reality. The vocal brokenness feels like a lump in the throat, impossible to swallow something about humanity; the things we do to ourselves as well as to each other. This is gorgeous and emotionally potent.
“Back and Forth” gives the sense of taking a breath and introspectively looking at the things that have happened. Delicate chimes and pulses grow into a stronger sound yet maintain a sense of vulnerability throughout, which is unnervingly at odds with the chaotic lyrics. Spoken word stream of thought flows pour out earnestly, and to an emotionally invested listener, the album may be something they need breaks from.
“Just close your eyes, it’ll be alright”
I’ve already used the word ‘gorgeous’ a lot, but I’m using it again with “Upstairs” to describe the soundscape at the introduction. With a realistic and storytelling voice, we’re plunged into erratic rhythms, with electronic crashes and distant piano. It all tastes like overwhelm, so when the whole thing vanished with a simple piano moments remaining, it felt exceptionally moving.
There’s genuine sadness here, not having anyone to lean onto or be reassurring in the dark times, and a quest to find something to hold onto while everything around is chaotic and unnerving. This is a beautiful piece of music, asking questions that they don’t necessarily want to have answered. Goosebumpingly beautiful.
If you’re not already moved by now, Placebo keeps coming at you. “Do We Dare” takes a darker sombre sound and is piano-centred chastisement with a sneer, billowing outward. It’s confusing by way of the manipulation that seems to be unfolding, wondering which way is up and which is down. Antagonism within these four walls hits hard, and with different pieces filtering through there’s a question of which ones make sense.
“Do we dare say what’s in our brains?”
Spoken word takes a higher perspective of the sharp points on the words that find their way out. The anguish here makes it tough to listen, feeling like hatred toward one and a sense of them ruining them. A fluid rush of doubts, questions, and promises that seem hollow. Confusion as to what can be trusted. It’s all so fucking moving, this very real hurt and bitterness which leaves the vocalist’s lips and shatters into raw pieces in front of us.
Eighth track “Wasting My Days” takes a lighter feel, while still feeling strong. A dancier beat with strong riffs and a guitar focus, while carrying the same layered intensity as previous tracks carried. The conversational voice is so satisfying here, flooding out eventually and leading into an interlude which hits hard:
“Maybe then I’ll be better
Maybe then I won’t ever feel this way again
Maybe someone good will finally want to be my friend
Maybe then I’ll see my own reflection”
The wailing of the guitar, the layered voices, the grooving of the bass. It’s so much going on, so many questions being asked, so much ache, and isolation.
“Save Me” comes in harder and stronger, and in the multi-layered style The New Age do so well, the track unpeels into something so emotionally open. The heavier track feels like an anguished attempt for someone else to take the reins of the life they feel like they can’t trust themselves with. Ouch, that pains as much as it sounds like it would.
Rippled electronics, hard-to-grasp vocals, and searching rock are what we discover at the tenth track “To Be Alive”. There’s irritation caused by another, and a push to have them wake up and see what they’re doing and the impact it has upon more than just them. In focusing on this stuckness, they ache for something more for themselves too; to break free of the confines they’re existing in, never feeling truly alive.
The vibe is grooving at the second verse, crushing up against strong rock, before bleeding in piano thoughtfulness and a sense of being apologetic for their existence. The task of trying to work things out and make things right on behalf of people who are blind is life-draining and infuriating. This is confrontingly real.
“I don’t want to be angry anymore”
The contemplative “Placebo” kicks hard; a sprinkling of piano upon dark existence. Swathes of breathy vocals wrap around gritty riffs and sharp edged concepts. Self-justification works hard to craft facades and screamed vocals with electronic accents aim to make sense of this. There’s so much here that could be said, of the earnest spoken word, the massive and searching choruses. The New Age do hard-hitting emotions right.
Last on the album is “Holes In The Walls”, with cascading vocals adding to a questioning melody and growing riffs at the introduction. The progression down into dark truths is stunning, with violence taking centre stage. This is no theatrical presentation painted to glamourise the situation. No, it’s an uncomfortably raw snapshot of living under the weight of uncontrollable violence. Electronic accents offer a distance from the heaviness of the topic, where truth avoidance has the symptom of fury, and the feeling is channelled into distruction. Goddamn this hits hard.
Placebo offers no happy ending here, and the album is end-to-end ache and open-ended questions. Yet each attempt to unfold and smooth the crumpled and anguished experiences is done beautifully and with unbridled creativity. The resulting emotional ruinment for the listener is the consequence of absorbing this gorgeous sonic story of toxic homelife.
At times layered and smothered, with flooded and cluttered expression falling upon us, we’re also given space to breathe and feel the weight of what’s being shared. Placebo is a breathtaking twelve track take on making sense of the harder parts of human life.
A moving collection of unique and unpredictable tracks, spanning from isolated vocals and piano through to cluttered streams of ache and multi-layered overwhelm. A breath-taking quest to find faith and trust again.
Emotionally ruining. Very very real. Be prepared for that.