Garbage: Peerless, Fearless, and Renewed

Photo Credit: Elias Tahan

On May 15th, Garbage will return after a long (and not altogether peaceful) hiatus with their fifth studio album Not Your Kind of People, out on their own label Stunvolume Records. Over the album’s twelve tracks, the band re-asserts their relevance as a fixture in the pop/rock world while at the same time calling into question their own role in that scene. For a band with such memorable success in the 90’s and early 2000’s, how can a record that sounds like an amalgamation of their four previous efforts stand tall against the likes of Adele, Lana Del Rey, The Black Keys and Florence + The Machine, who are the modern-day equivalent of their Smashing Pumpkins’, Nirvana’s and Nine Inch Nails’ compatriots? Does it have to?

Regardless of one’s take on the situation, the compelling force behind this new album is found right in front of your face. Garbage is the first to tell you they’re not your kind of people by naming their fifth album exactly that. The record is less of a snapshot and more of a photo album of a band who never fit in, owning and promoting being the outsiders to the same industry that built them up, spit them out, but ultimately gave them what they needed to do it on their own. And here in 2012, it’s no different, except that they’re still making music and continuing to put themselves out there, label-less and perhaps way better off for it.

Thrown into the music world as a heaping pile of putrid synths, guitars that sound like they were tossed into a blender and lethal injections of infectious pop, Garbage is the carefully crafted product of four members: all-star producers Butch Vig and Duke Erikson, engineer Steve Marker and the seductive yet menacing vocals of the iconic Shirley Manson. Their sound was the logical next step after the testosterone-fueled grunge occupation of the early 1990s. They appealed to the angst and other-edness many felt after the disjointed 1980s, but Garbage pushed the accessibility of the music by consciously making the melodies purely pop. And this type of aesthetic matched with a pointed social engagement played into the exact strategy of the major labels of the time. Companies like Sony, BMG Music, Universal and others were not only ready but willing to use their disposable corporate dollars to capitalize on music lovers feeling like outcasts of society– long before any “It Gets Better” campaign.

Already navigating the waters of the pop culture consciousness was a group of nerds called Radiohead, a scorned Canadian named Alanis Morissette and the still mourning Courtney Love of Hole. Butch Vig already had the accolade of producing the seminal album of this era: Nirvana’s Nevermind. Shirley Manson initially fronted the band Angelfish, which offered a preview into the brooding sound she’d trademark with Garbage. Duke Erikson and Steve Marker completed the rest of the equation by using their knowledge of underground and club culture to construct their own songs, but keeping remix elements like repetitive samples and beats very much present.

By the time the MTV generation got their first glimpse in 1995 of Manson brazenly shouting into a Unidyne microphone while wearing a red pimp coat, backed by her male counterparts drilling holes into the very guitars they wielded, there was no denying that the buzz around the band was well-deserved. There was a palpable and visceral electricity to their aesthetic, which both announced very loudly their aims while also subtly demonstrating how much potential they still contained. Their self-titled debut spawned 6 singles and went platinum all over the world, but above that Garbage began making waves because they had seemingly appropriated so much of what was popular in the zeitgeist while still maintaining a unique style that was utterly entrancing.

The success set high expectations for album number two, as hit debuts usually do, but Garbage doubled their efforts and managed to outdo themselves, both on the charts and musically. The group took what worked (and perhaps what didn’t for some critics) on the previous record and put it under a magnifying glass. Even this early in their career, they were carving out their own space by dismissing naysayers who called their sound too loud, dark, or dance-y for the genres and audiences to which their labels marketed. Instead, they turned up the guitars, addressed more controversial themes and drove their beats with more vigor and muscle. Fittingly titled Version 2.0, the second album went platinum in more territories, yielded singles with higher chart peaks and set the stage for the band to snag the much coveted James Bond theme song slot with “The World Is Not Enough.”

Photo Credit: Elias Tahan

Instead of taking a well-deserved break after the breakout success of their first two albums, Garbage began work on their third album, beautifulgarbage, in 2001, barely a year after finishing their largest and most exhausting tour yet. The emerging sound from those sessions was different than the previous two records, in that the unhinged nature of the music and perhaps a bulk of the angst were replaced with unabashed joy and an all-over gloss to the style and production. Fans and critics alike will point to songs like “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” as clear departures from conventional Garbage; however, they still sounded like nothing on rock or pop radio.

Despite the attempt to alter the well-received Garbage aesthetic and inject it with some new elements, the album failed to reach the heights of their 90s success. It also had the misfortune of being released three weeks after 9/11, when the industry in general experienced a massive slump. In their documentary  2007 “Thanks For Your Uhhh, Support,” Erikson cited many things wrong with the record, and that beautifulgarbage began the start of much-publicized tension within the band.

Garbage felt pressured (whether by their label or personally is debatable) to recapture the prominence they experienced in the 90s. Sessions for the fourth album began in 2003, but took longer than anticipated due to Manson undergoing vocal chord surgery, as well as logistical disruptions stemming from members’  lack of communication. Almost a year after sessions began, Garbage took what music they had and started compiling a record. Bleed Like Me was an obvious and conscious departure from the sound of beautifulgarbage. It’s also the only record that attempted to capture the energy of their live sound, allowing the songs to breathe more and maintain a rougher edge. The band seemed in better spirits during promotional efforts, but a cancelled world tour and the words “indefinite hiatus” did nothing to calm the fears of their fans who already felt the group was handcuffed by barbed wire to each other.

In the ensuing years after Bleed Like Me, the band busied themselves with other projects. The most anticipated of those was Shirley Manson’s long-expected solo album. She released a couple tracks through social networking channels, while duly keeping fans up to date on the work’s progress. The project unfortunately never came to fruition due to label disputes on how Manson should sound. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, she revealed her then-label Geffen wanted her to be more of Annie Lennox-type figure and called her solo material “too noir,” as if they expected someone who was only happy when it rains to make an album full of Little Birds. She broke the news to those following the the album’s journey that it had been shelved. Even with an arsenal of Top 10s and Grammy nominations, an artist is at the mercy of his or her label’s idea of their art and what it should be.

Call it serendipity, call it boredom, or even call it sheer sentimentality, but after the band met up for a party and all enjoyed each other’s company, they decided to book some studio time in 2010. It was then that the foursome realized that perhaps Garbage wasn’t canned just yet. After all, they’d been together for almost 20 years at this point– a basically unheard of timeframe for a group of their caliber remaining active.

Photo Credit: Autumn De Wilde

In two weeks, Garbage returns to the music scene with their fifth album, titled Not Your Kind of People. Musically, we haven’t heard this type of energy since Version 2.0. While the album doesn’t necessarily sound like that record, the creativity and vibe is definitely similar. For example, the UK single “Battle In Me” could not be a more perfect “hey, we have new music out, and you’ve probably missed songs like this” single. Listen to the song on headphones: elaborate electronics, distorted chanting, and soaring refrains are appropriately at war with the speakers feeding you the music.

Further down the tracklist, Garbage proves they still have a lot to say and are willing to take production risks throughout. The title track is eerie, with almost alien-esque vocals from Shirley, while closing song “Beloved Freak” risks being saccharine, but instead yields an inspirational delivery with a well-placed “this little light of mine” refrain. Fans of the more lighthearted but bombastic songs, like “When I Grow Up” and “Parade,” will obsess over the anthemic, larger-than-life track “Big Bright World.” On the whole, the album is hard evidence that time away was exactly what the group needed to resurrect their artistic vision and passion.

Not Your Kind of People is a strong personal statement, in that it’s four musicians acknowledging that Garbage shaped their perspectives on everything – politics, success, family, and, most importantly, music. They’re owning any missteps and embracing both faults and strengths. More than anything, though, listening to the album will allow fans to relax. Shirley, Butch, Duke, and Steve sound rejuvenated, and any concerns that their hearts aren’t in it are just plain misguided.

Garbage’s return raises just as many questions as it does excitement, however. While we watch some of their contemporaries abandon the sounds that made them a name in exchange for more artistically-driven choices, Garbage decides to put out a record that plays to their aesthetic strengths and the elements that define them in the face of criticism that they come off as “recycled.” Although it’s unrealistic to expect the group to succeed even a third as well as they did at the start of their careers, their sound is a reminder of what mainstream pop used to sound like, which is in no way a derivative or nostalgic move. In an era where the single already sounds like the remix, the songs released from Garbage’s fifth album thus far are unapologetic in the muddy, grunge-tinged pop that we love to associate with them. Perhaps unclassifiable initially, maybe this is Garbage finally telling us if you need to call it something, call it Garbage?

Photo Credit: Autumn De Wilde

For any band, each successive record released risks tarnishing whatever positive success they’ve enjoyed, and for Garbage at this point it was a fairly well-documented and lauded legacy, demonstrated by frequent appearances in best-of lists across media. But let’s not mistake the celebration of Garbage’s newest record and their influence on rock music as simply a nostalgic yearning for a time where album sales kept the music industry afloat and female vocalists weren’t party-club-sex obsessed. We can call Garbage post-grunge and death pop all we want, but they are one of the true genre-defining bands to experience mainstream success. There’s no need to feel forced to include them in a “Greatest Albums/Bands of the 1990s” think-piece; rather, you simply can’t compile one without them.

The strongest testament to the mark they’ve made is that there simply hasn’t been anyone like them. Female-fronted vocals over grunge muscles and a pop exoskeleton? Not even their often-cited contemporaries, such as No Doubt and Hole, could replicate Garbage’s well-oiled, turbocharged songs. While we watched the former and latter bands go through reggae-pop incarnations and lineup shifts, Garbage has remained true to their initial vision: take everything that’s beautiful and ugly about your favorite kinds of music, put it in a trash-compactor and mischievously place a rose on top.

Most of all, though, Garbage is owning their outsider status. Not sounding like anyone isn’t easy, but they’ve been doing it for almost twenty years, and 13 million records later, they’re showing no signs of succumbing to a dance music craze or label demands to sound like someone they’ve never been. Being able to own that type of agency is a result of many things– namely proven success, setups and knockdowns, and die-hards. More than anything, we’re still writing about Garbage because living legends provide the answers to the questions we have of where we were and where we’ll be. They say it best in “Beloved Freak” – when we’re gone, we will remain.

Photo Credit: Elias Tahan

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