A new feature wherin I pull up a band / artist’s early material alongside their latest to ponder either ‘where did it all go wrong?’ or ‘how the hell do they keep getting better?’
Then: Nancy Boy
Placebo arrived on the ‘scene’ way back in 1996 with their self-title debut – I think I swapped a copy of Nevermind with someone to get a copy at the time (I must have had more than one as I’ve never been without Nirvana’s sophomore) – and their ‘Bruise Pristine’ single.
Placebo and the band’s second album Without You I’m Nothing rank among the best alternative records of the 20th Century.
Brian Molko’s deliberate androgyny, the buzzsaw guitars and almost nasal-whine vocals with lyrics about bisexuality, drugs and casual sex (“Eyeholes in a paper bag/greatest lay I ever had”) propelled ‘Nancy Boy’ and Placebo into the mainstream. Continual rotation on MTV2 when it launched and music videos were still played and heavy radio play meant ‘Nancy Boy’ and Placebo – with their basic guitar / bass/ drums setup – provided a breath of welcome fresh attitude and air to the increasingly stale Britpop and ‘lounge-act indie’ that was chocking the ‘alternative scene’.
Several albums and drummer rotations later….
Now: Too Many Friends
Save for a one-off single in 2016, Placebo haven’t released a new album since 2013’s Loud Like Love. I haven’t listened to that album, I’d tuned out since Meds (solid, slight return-to-form fifth album) and the departure of drummer Steve Hewitt but when I heard ‘Too Many Friends’ on the radio… I knew it wasn’t worth hearing more. It’s a slip into the hammy self parody lane with catchy and original lyrics replaced with forced rhymes – I only needed to hear the first opening lines to know something was wrong:
“My computer thinks I’m gay
I threw that piece of junk away
On the Champs-Élysées
As I was walking home”
Aside from shoehorning in a Paris avenue for a rhyme… really, Brian? You were walking home with your computer out when it – somehow – decided you were a crafty butcher? What happened to making snide jokes about sexual hangups? In the same verse, ‘gay’ is also rhymed with ‘communique’ and ‘superhighway’. Oh, and ‘say’.
I don’t know where it all went wrong. Perhaps the band should’ve called it a day a few albums back and pursued over avenues… either way, there’s only so many times you can plumb the same vein and it seems Placebo reached the bottom of that barrel. A shame, really.
From the PR: “When a teenager is accused of a high-school murder, he finds himself subject to trial by social media … and in the dock. A taut, moving and chilling thriller by one of Nordic Noir’s finest writers.
When the high school in the small Norwegian village of Fredheim becomes a murder scene, the finger is soon pointed at seventeen-year-old Even. As the investigation closes in, social media is ablaze with accusations, rumours and even threats, and Even finds himself the subject of an online trial as well as being in the dock … for murder?
Even pores over his memories of the months leading up to the crime, and it becomes clear that more than one villager was acting suspiciously … and secrets are simmering beneath the calm surface of this close-knit community. As events from the past play tag with the present, he’s forced to question everything he thought he knew. Was the death of his father in a car crash a decade earlier really accidental? Has his relationship stirred up something that someone is prepared to kill to protect?
It seems that there may be no one that Even can trust.
But can we trust him?
A taut, moving and chilling thriller, Inborn examines the very nature of evil, and asks the questions: How well do we really know our families? How well do we know ourselves?”
CAUTION: A tiny whiff of a spoiler is contained within..
Thomas Enger’s Inborn has a fantastic opening. By this I really don’t mean the rest of it isn’t worth the trees it’s printed on, far from it.. but that opening murder, bloody hell. Johannes Eklund is a teenager with a bright future who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His attempt to flee and his final moments make for as powerful an opener as I’ve read this year: a vividly brutal murder where you feel the fear and panic as it consumes Johannes, made all the more powerful as, beyond being a particularly violent end, it’s happening to a kid in his teens.
After the initial hook and shock Inborn is a real slow burner at first as Enger lines up all the pieces – aided by nicely employing different narratives- and then there’s a moment about a third of the way in where it caught me and I wasn’t able to put it down until the early hours of the morning when I’d finished the whole thing with each of my “ah so he/she’s the killer” assumptions blown apart as soon as they’d formed.
Thomas Enger, as anyone who’s read his Henning Juul books will agree, has a real knack for writing parents dealing with the murder of their child in a way that’ll punch you right in the guts and those scenes in Inborn – parents rendered numb and desperate with grief – are particularly affecting.
Much as with his Henning Juul series, Inborn slowly but surely unravels a compelling and intricate web of lies that have been lurking beneath the surface of this small town. I was thoroughly gripped as the reason Mari Lindgren ended her relationship with Even was revealed – even if (here’s that SPOILER), in the end, it had nothing to do with her murder after all.
The characters that populate Inborn are richly detailed and the fact that they made me feel old shows how well written the teen characters are. The gits. As great as the Even narrative and character is, the stand out for me is Yngve Mork. The local policeman, barely coming to terms with the recent death of his wife is a beautifully written character that I could happily go through a series of novels.
Inborn is a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding read with plenty of sharp turns and surprises to ensure you stay hooked to the end. Exceedingly well written, brilliantly plotted and wholeheartedly recommended.
My thanks, always, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.
First up, a disclaimer: This series was supposed to be two parts long. This second installment has taken as long as it has to kick in because I realise whittling down my ‘short list’ to a ‘final list’ has proven impossible. As such… this is now Part 2 of 3.
So Part 3 and Playlist to follow. Let’s get back to it!
“The screen door slams”
Springsteen has often said that in Born To Run he made a conscious effort to stream down his lyrics and write lyrics that were a little more direct. He didn’t lose the poetry or power in his lyrics, just trimmed the fluff. That’s evinced from the very first line on the album. ‘Thunder Road’ is full of great imagery – like those ‘Skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets’ – but that opening line is as perfect as it gets. There’s a universality to it – this isn’t a song about Jersey or NYC, it could be anywhere – and a sense of romance and promise as the screen door ‘slams’ on the past and Mary looks out and, presumably, pulls out to win.
All I’m Thinkin’ About
“Little boy carrying a fishing pole, little girl picking huckleberries from off of the vine, brown bag filled with a little green toad”
Devils and Dust is the third and most recent of Springsteen’s ‘acoustic’ albums but not as songs aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska. As with both of those, Devils.. is a ‘story’ song album and while some songs aren’t as strong as they could be there’s still a lot well crafted lyrics in there – three of my favourite’s come from this late-period collection including ‘All I’m Thinkin About’ which is just chock full of great, poetic visuals that come close to early Springsteen lines.
One Step Up
“Mmm she ain’t lookin’ too married. And me, well, honey I’m pretending”
In its 1987 review of Tunnel of Love, Rolling Stone called it “an unsettled and unsettling collection of hard looks at the perils of commitment. A decade or so ago, Springsteen acquired a reputation for romanticizing his subject matter; on this album he doesn’t even romanticize romance.” The album is one of my favourites and ‘One Step Up’ is full of great lines from the firs ‘Woke up this morning the house was cold’… yeah… the furnace wasn’t burning but this is a song of allegory and Springsteen was finding his house cold and a marriage that wasn’t burning either but that line.. “Me, honey, I’m pretending”… of course, Tunnel.. being the album of uncertain minds that it is it’s followed by “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending. We danced as the evening sky faded to black” as the contrast between dream and reality hits in.
I’m On Fire
“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my skull”
As mentioned in Part 1 – the thrill of Springsteen’s archival releases is hearing lyrics being worked on in situ as it were. Catching rough drafts of lyrics that would reach fruition years later attached to very different, musically, tunes. Keen-eared listeners to The Promise will have picked up a huge chunk of ‘I’m On Fire’s lyrics being worked on in ‘Spanish Eyes’. The opening couplet “Hey little girl, is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone” is right there as are the “does he do to you” lines but, somewhere in the intervening few years it became a more brooding song of frustrated desire and that line ‘edgy and dull’ is what transforms it for me. Absolutely love that line.
Lost In The Flood
“The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway, he walks through town all alone”
Springsteen’s first Vietnam vet reference and on his first album. ‘Lost in the Flood’ is just an all-out lyrical high with some great visuals and stories that I can never get enough of, it’s probably why I’ve kept my ‘Bronx’ Best Apostle’ t-shirt for so long. There’s nuns runnin ‘bald’, Eighth Avenue sailors, street fights and cops putting ‘that cat from the Bronx’ right away. But, as scene setters go, that opening line takes some beating.
Devils and Dust
“Fear’s a powerful thing, it can turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take your God filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”
Devils and Dust has songs on it that date back to Ghost of Tom Joad and I can’t help but feel that it was writing the title tune that gave Springsteen the ‘key’ he needs for each album to tie them all together – it may will be why this song, written in anger at the end of the Bush years – gave it’s title to the collection. What do you do when what you’re doing to survive kills who you are?
“Children are asking if it’s alright, will you be in our arms tonight?”
For all it’s songs of finding solace in love and music and each other, The Rising would not be the powerful response to 9/11 if it didn’t handle the overwhelming loss experienced by so many and rendered it as powerfully as it did. ‘You’re Missing’ is a heavy hitter with it’s subtlety and perfectly captures the loss of someone’s physicality when everything else in the world remains. “I thought, ‘What do you miss?’ You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody. I’ve had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realize that it just couldn’t happen.”
Lines like “Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair, papers on the doorstep, you’re not there” get that across but it’s the “children are asking” line that does it. That loss… the kids needing that hug… man he nails it.
“Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well don’t waste your time waiting!”
Woah oh oh BADLANDS! Darkness.. is my favourite Springsteen album and up there with my favourite albums period. For all its seriousness and samurai approach to songwriting, there are some uplifting, inspirational messages in there just like this and…
Prove It All Night
“Well everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist. There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this. Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream, we’re living all through the night. You want it? You take it, you pay the price”
As he’d latter rue himself for doing in ‘Better Days’… don’t sit around waiting for your lift to begin: get up and get it done because the world isn’t going to just give it to you.
Death to My Hometown
“The greedy thieves who came around, and ate the flesh of everything they found
whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now”
Musically and overall this is not even up in my Top 20. Wrecking Ball has some strong songs but I don’t put it too high in Springsteen’s overall catalogue. However – as Aphoristcal commented on the previous installment – even when he’s not at his finest musically, he’s remained a very good lyricist. I’d go a little further and say that as he’s matured and widened his experiences he’s not only gotten better but his lyrics (when he’s not simply repeating lines for emphasis) remain great and Wrecking Ball is full of examples of Springsteen using a cracking lyric to rage against the 2008 economic crisis. I especially enjoy ‘Death to My Hometown’s use of archaic references to destructive forces like ‘cannonballs’ and blood soaked ground. Not to mention the tying in of ‘My Hometown’ – a song so many associate with warmth – being torn apart.