Happy 20th Anniversary to Placebo’s second studio album Without You I’m Nothing, originally released October 12, 1998.
David Bowie. Robert Smith. Todd Haynes. Some of the most amazing minds in the world love Placebo. And their second album Without You I’m Nothing offers ample reason why.
Seductively melancholic, Placebo’s sophomore record sidesteps any signs of slump and instead purposefully perpetuates the comedown—indulging the emotional throes that follow all highs, be they in the heart or the brain.
To start, “Day's dawning / Skin's crawling / Pure morning,” the chorus to the album’s opener, is already a reaction to what was, aptly embodying the pulsing delirium that accompanies a long night of chemical excess. Emerging into the sunshine after untold debauchery, this morning feels anything but pure. And yet, despite this dismal condition, singer/guitarist Brian Molko, partly through playful lyricism and partly through his unflinchingly distinctive vocal delivery, manages to welcome us into the fray.
Like Danny Boyle’s heroin-hued Trainspotting (1996), which arrived two years prior, Without You I’m Nothing provides a window into a subculture that’s often unhealthy and toxic, but like all things human, filled with poignant moments that make the empty, lonely periods all the hollower.
In interviews, Molko has claimed “Pure Morning” is somewhat of a juvenile embarrassment. In fact, the band stopped performing it live for nearly a decade. But it’s arguably still the band’s most well-known song 20 years later. As the first single from the second album, it catapulted the European trio to new levels of commercial success. Although their self-titled debut (1994) took the number-five spot on the UK Albums Chart, it never garnered much beyond college radio play in the States. But the deviant, harmless charm of “Pure Morning” enthralled American listeners, even working its way to MTV programming and a Top 20 designation on Billboard’s Hot Modern Rock Tracks. It also helped reach new fans across the UK and the rest of Europe.
Thankfully, it’s also how Placebo entered my life. I’d been working at the UCLA radio station and “Pure Morning” was one of many songs from Without You I’m Nothing in regular rotation. I quickly decided it wouldn’t do to limit my listening to DJ shifts alone, so I bought my own copy and brought it home. It turned out I wasn’t unique in my adoration.
Along with maybe seven other albums, Without You I’m Nothing is inextricably entwined with my senior year. After class, my friends and I would put the entire album on repeat. And, on party nights, we’d dance giddily to the album’s smattering of seemingly up-tempo tracks, including our bounce-around-the-room fave, “You Don’t Care About Us,” which lyrically centers on a failing relationship and probably shouldn’t produce as much joy as it does.
But, that’s the magic of Placebo. They don’t shy away from difficult feelings or glumly cower in the fringes. Without You I’m Nothing wasn’t representative of Britpop, grunge, the rave scene or any of the major 1990s alternative music trends. More than anything, it showcased a hard-to-categorize rebellious spirit that my friends and I, who frequented clubs with names like Perversion and Stigmata, completely understood. It was a liberating world where men wore makeup and dresses without fear of ridicule and women were comfortably decked out in fishnets and Docs. It was a safe place, where it was acceptable to speak freely about identity, relationships, depression and religion—the things that we start to contemplate as we move from adolescence to adulthood. Placebo thrived in this space. They captured the invincibility and vulnerability in equal measure.
Molko and co-founding member Stefan Olsdal, who plays bass, guitar and piano on the album, have cited a wide range of musical influences, from PJ Harvey to Depeche Mode to Sonic Youth. But the single-most influential figure in their career was David Bowie, who was both a fan and a mentor from the beginning. Bowie scooped them up to support his tour and helped them build their reputation. The two not only shared a similar androgynous sensibility, but also demonstrated how well they paired sonically in their recording of the album’s heart-wrenching title track, which was released with the single the following year.
Those quick to judge Placebo based on their unconventional appearance are missing the point and sadly will never experience the inherent depth behind their music. It’s authentic expression that imbues art with meaning, and without it, there’s nothing.