Placebo's Sleeping With Ghosts is one of the Best Concept Albums of the 2000s
On the 1st of April, 2003, Placebo released their fourth studio album, Sleeping With Ghosts. It remains their tightest concept album, and likely Brian's greatest lyrical and conceptual achievement to date. It was the first time he truly nailed the difficult synergy between self-contained stories and an overall narrative, a method he used on both 2009's Battle For The Sun and 2013's Loud Like Love. Of 2013's Loud Like Love, Brian described the technique he perfected on 2003's Sleeping With Ghosts:
...this record as a collection of 10 small fictions, based on my own experience and my own feelings around relationships over the past 20 years, I feel that I’ve been able to use the device [of] storytelling, which I think I’ve become a little bit more adept at, create songs with characters.He said something similar in an interview with Drowned In Sound prior to the release of Sleeping With Ghosts: "I write both from my own point of view and from others. Sometimes I create a character and place myself within it. I find that it's a release for me, and I think I have gotten better at storytelling."
There are three distinct narratives running through Sleeping With Ghosts, all orchestrated by Brian's lyrical content and matched seamlessly by the new electro-rock direction the band began on 2001's Black Market Music. On the surface level, the entire album details a relationship, from euphoric start to painful finish. On top of that, each individual song is a self-contained story, not always about love ("Something Rotten", "Plasticine"), and able to be viewed and enjoyed separately. The third narrative is the most meta approach the band has ever taken, as Brian, Stefan and Steve deal with the pressures of fame and celebrity, as well as the development of their unit artistically, and the acknowledgement that, as humans, they are mortal and that Placebo as an entity is mortal as well.
The album is called Sleeping With Ghosts, and as much as Brian wants to claim "There are many themes. There's never a full unity to an album we make", it's clear that the album can be viewed as a start-to-finish love story (whether intentional or not).
"Bulletproof Cupid" is a frenetic, adrenaline-fuelled description of the moment your heart exits your chest and enters the soul of another human being, the euphoric rush of new love. It's length may be a commentary on the fleeting nature of the "honeymoon period" of a relationship, because conflict almost immediately ensues.
"English Summer Rain" tracks the perceived drudgery of a relationship of routine, maybe even a marriage, where one or both parties are stuck thinking "is this it?". A pre-breakup song, if you will, a primer for "The Bitter End".
"This Picture" and "Sleeping With Ghosts" approach the impending breakup from different angles, the former an energetic admission that things are over ("Hang on / Though we try / It's gone"), the latter an acceptance that life will never truly be the same, the most romantic ending imaginable ("It seems it's written / but we can't read between the lines").
"The Bitter End" is the focal point of the record, and the series of events it sets off is Placebo at their absolute best. Brian said: "It's about a relationship, two people fighting, they both want to be the stronger one. A classic fuck-you song." The breakup teased in the previous two songs explodes in technicolour, with spite and malice.
"Something Rotten" then captures the desperation and depression, the heart-wrenching loneliness that follows the loss of love. While "The Bitter End" is full of adrenalin and action, "Something Rotten" is a frank admission of pain.
Things oscillate wildly over the next 5 songs. Post-break up moods and emotions can be a confusing maelstrom of conflicted thoughts and feelings, of positive and negative behaviour. "Plasticine" tries to counter the immediate desire to change or mould yourself in order to appeal to the person you just lost. LCD Soundsystem perfectly captured this phenomenon on "I Can Change", and Brian's plea's to "Don't forget to be the way you are" are the most rational words on the entire album.
Third single "Special Needs" could be a competing thought, and the music video is the visual expression of the title of the album. The relationship has passed, and the protagonist is, as Brian says, "worrying that they’ll be written out of their ex’s biography". As those who have experienced this thought know, it can plant delusions of reconciliation, or a desire to resume the relationship at all costs, exemplified by "I'll Be Yours", of which Brian says: "Someone who wants to engulf another person completely in the name of love." Again, he is rational enough to see logic and sense, notably in "Second Sight" and "Protect Me From What I Want", the first sung in second-person as if Brian is giving our protagonist the motivation and means to remove themselves from the situation that developed in "Special Needs", the second is the protagonist reacting to that plea, desperate to move on but unsure how to do so.
All of this leads to "Centrefolds", the piano-based closer, and the saddest song on the record. It ties the narrative up perfectly. While the protagonist has been battling themselves internally since the start of "Something Rotten", their former partner has moved on in spectacular fashion. Brian's lyrics capture the pain and loneliness that accompany the realisation that you no longer matter at all to this person who was once your entire life. The relationship is well and truly over, and you're now forced to sleep with the ghost forever more.
"Bulletproof Cupid" opens the album at a frenetic pace, and Brian explained it was used to build intrigue, to drag people into the album through the lack of vocals. The track encapsulates everything the band has been working towards since their first album: it's raw and barely controlled energy. This could be a fight song, or used to pump you up before tackling a difficult task.
"English Summer Rain" is an expression of angst at the drudgery of daily life, using the stereotypical English weather (rain even during summer) to highlight the malaise someone with untapped potential may feel when stuck in a dull daily routine.
"This Picture" is best explained by Brian: "Someone walking away from a self-destructive relationship. It recalls James Dean’s fetish of having cigarettes stubbed out on his chest during sex, only here they’re being stubbed out on mine." The music video and accompanying commentary describes someone losing their identity due to an abusive or violent relationship.
"Sleeping With Ghosts", again explained by Brian: "Inspired by a crazy American psychologist who believes in the cliché of eternal love. He thought two of his patients were soulmates who’d been reincarnated through many previous lives." The refrain "soulmates never die" was adopted for their 2003 tour video, and addresses the idea that true love between those destined to be together never dissipates or diminishes regardless of time.
"The Bitter End", being one of their most successful and famous songs, has a number of interviews that feature interpretations, but the simplest is taken from the title. It's about the end of a relationship, the very end, a very bitter and spiteful end. "Two people trying to come out of a relationship with the least scars. Very fuck you."
This feeds into "Something Rotten", a song that caused a minor stir when the album dropped because it was believed to be about certain scandals in the music industry that had come to light during this time. Brian said the song was "instinctual", and he didn't really have a theme or target in mind when singing the lyrics. Steve also said in that interview it was open for interpretation, and the closest we get to a full explanation is Brian hinting it may be about physical or mental abuse in a marriage, a topic explored on "This Picture" and escaped during "The Bitter End".
"Plasticine" is straight-forward, a song about accepting yourself for who you are and not modifying your behaviour, appearance, or thought patterns based on societal norms. It's probably the song that best describes Placebo's appeal and motive during their first 5 albums, as "music for outsiders, by outsiders".
"Special Needs" then details a protagonist's desire for recognition in the face of a world that values conformity. It also details someone being left behind, be that an ex-lover or a friend or even a family member. Seeing someone close to you excel while you tread water can be difficult to come to terms with.
"I'll Be Yours" is a simple premise; a person becomes consumed with another person. "Someone who wants to engulf another person completely in the name of love. Something I’ve been on the receiving end of and it’s scary". Fans have long speculated it's about Brian's relationship with alcohol, fuelled by his tattoo that seemingly pays tribute to the group Alcoholics Anonymous and lines like "I'll be your liquor / bathing your soul with juice that's pure".
"Second Sight" could be about the same topic, only from a sober and more rational perspective. Brian says it's the story of a one-night stand, and the fight for dignity after engaging in such behaviour. It could easily be your conscience calling you out for yet another perceived mistake.
"Protect Me From What I Want" can then be applied to this theme of alcoholism again, although it's another example of a Placebo song with enough ambiguity to lend itself to endless applications. The message is simple: I know it's bad for me but I want it anyway. Brian said it's written from personal experience, stuck in a "self-destructive relationship", but it can be applied to so many different stories or personal circumstances.
Finally, "Centrefolds" acts almost like the centrepiece of the album. All of the negative self-talk, self-loathing, and self-centred voices from "Special Needs" packed into three short paragraphs. "For you to be mine" is dripping with pain and desperation, a protagonist beaten down by their own self-hatred trying one last ditch effort to attract the object of their desire.
Each of these tales can link with each other, but they're written so well any song on this record could slot into any Placebo album before or after and not feel out of place. "Plasticine" is such a universal Placebo theme it'd fit perfectly on Loud Like Love or Battle For The Sun. Meds would easily accommodate "Something Rotten" or "I'll Be Yours", and Black Market Music could include "Second Sight" or "Bulletproof Cupid". It's the quintessential Placebo album, delivered via 12 self-contained stories.
In the Context of the Band
Placebo do not often refer to themselves as an entity on wax. Tracks like "Happy You're Gone" and "Come Undone" are anomalies in their catalogue, and the only time Brian has sung the word "Placebo" on a recorded song was on the demo "Flesh Mechanic" way back in 1994/1995. It's unlikely Sleeping With Ghosts was written with the trajectory the band has taken in mind, but the songwriting is strong enough that it can easily be applied to the various stages the band had been going through and would go through in the not-to-distant future.
Remember that their ascension to the limelight was incredibly fast. Before they'd even recorded their first album they were touring with David Bowie, as well as supporting The Foo Fighers. NME were interviewing the band in 1995. Courted by major labels, they signed a deal quickly and finished recording Placebo in quick time. "Bulletproof Cupid" is the embodiment of this whirlwind start, thrusting the listener into the album the same way Placebo were strapped with guitars and thrown headlong at the press. By "English Summer Rain", or 1997 in Placebo history, they'd already appeared tired and bored of the drudgery of the press circuit, with Brian proclaiming in May of that year he was already tired of the narrative that the English press had cooked up about him.
Along came Without You I'm Nothing, a wholly more mature and fleshed out Placebo sound. The refrain of "can't stop growing old" from "This Picture" fits perfectly, and the loss of identity that song communicates can be applied to Brian's own self-identity, which at the time seemed to be changing every interview. "Sleeping With Ghosts" and "The Bitter End" could easily be switched around, with the latter describing the break-up of the original trio (Robert Schultzberg leaving) and the former describing the bond between the new trio, a bond that would remain strong for another decade of intense writing and touring.
"Something Rotten" describes the way the band had begun to give in to the sweet embrace of illicit substances. Fans have long since speculated "My Sweet Prince" is about Brian's experience with heroin, and countless interviews speak on the excess the band engaged in during this time. By this album in 2003 the band had begun to take a step back and take stock of their indulgences, and maybe began to view those Herculean ingestions as "something rotten".
"Plasticine" hardly needs an explanation. It's about being yourself, a concept that Brian and Stefan bravely pursued throughout their entire career. From wearing dresses on stage in Irving Plaza during heavy rock shows to writing a song like "Nancy Boy", Placebo has blazed a trail for anyone different from the norm.
"Special Needs" could be an ode to the rock star lifestyle. "Just nineteen and sucker's dream, I guess I thought you had the flavour". Brian may be singing to the person he is below the guitar and alcohol - "remember me when you're the one you've always dreamed". Of course, he's never had to truly reconnect with the mundanity of a normal job, and in 2015 declared himself free of that shackle for eternity.
"I'll Be Yours" could be about the rabid fan base that the band had amassed by this stage of their career. In 1999 he spoke of screaming teenage fans, and in subsequent years, especially during huge concerts in South America, those fans would show up in droves to their shows. The band even used death threats Brian received on their 1998 hidden track "Evil Dildo".
"Second Sight" and "Protect Me From What I Want" can again be attributed to the excesses the band had indulged in thus far in their career. Although the band had yet to truly take stock of the toll drugs and alcohol had taken on their personal lives (this would come with Meds and Battle For The Sun), there are always numerous references to drugs on every Placebo album. As this interview explains, Brian was dragging himself slowly out of this era of substance addiction, only to be dragged straight back in during Meds.
"Centrefolds" is a band reaching what, in the music industry, is at the very least middle-age. They exploded in 1996, and most bands by their 7th year would be well on the way out, one or two well-received albums under their belt. Rarely did Stefan and Brian comment on the mortality of the band in song, but certainly "Centrefolds" foreshadowed the breakdown that occurred post-Meds, a breakdown that may have already been in motion when this album was released.