Garbage make a mess on their latest
By Michael McCall
JUNE 29, 1998: Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel opens Bitch, her recent best-selling book about bad women and the men who love them, recounting an essay by Linda Wells, editor of the fashion magazine Allure. As Wurtzel tells it, Wells opened one issue with a declaration that she yearned to be someone she wasn't. "I may look blond and corn-fed," she wrote, "I may come from a long line of Iowa farmers, but in my heart I am dark and cynical and dangerous."
In other words, she didn't envision herself as the Ivory Girl. Rather, she imagined herself to be more like Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage.
Two years ago, with the release of Garbage's debut album, Manson became the favored rock-bitch figurehead of the mid-'90s. Thoroughly photogenic, with pouty painted lips, blazing red hair, darkly painted eyes, pale skin, and bold clothing, Manson backed up her bad-ass waif look by resurrecting the challenging, come-on snarl of Chrissie Hynde. Her band turned techno grooves, guitar hooks, and pop harmonies into deliciously seductive mainstream rock.
"Hey boy, look at me," Manson sang in an aggressive purr, "let me dirty up your mind. I'll strip away your hard veneer and see what I can find." Small wonder that, in concert, the stage front was lined with gawking young guys who swooned when the singer leaned over them, gazing sternly and snarling, "I will feed your affliction, the falling star you cannot live without. I will be your religion, last thing you'll ever doubt.... Bow down to me." Instead, the crowds pressed forward, caught in her trance.
Thanks to her sultry yet forceful presence, Manson managed to overshadow her bandmates, which was quite a feat. All three men in Garbage are well-regarded record producers. The best-known of them, drummer and tape-loop manipulator Butch Vig, produced several of the most memorable commercial rock albums of the '90s, including Nirvana's Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream, Sonic Youth's Dirty, and Freedy Johnston's This Perfect World. The other two members, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, were known for their jarringly artful remixes of songs by Nine Inch Nails, Killdozer, and Tad, among others.
With such an impressive collective track record and with such a stunning debut, expectations were high for Garbage's follow-up, Version 2.0. Maybe too high. Sounding nearly as generic as its title, the album submerges the band's pop smarts in noisy, confusing arrangements that rarely gel. Manson sounds bland and bloodless--which takes some doing--as she alternately rants or chants the lyrics in a monotone.
Worst yet, the experimental premise at the core of the album completely fails. Rather than bury rhythm and guitar samples inside their songs, the Garbage crew decides to lift whole melodies and song phrases. Thus, repeating choruses of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," The Pretenders' "Precious," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," and Romeo Void's "I Might Like You Better (If We Slept Together)" crop up in the middle of Garbage's own songs. The band intended these segments to serve as tributes to glorious pop moments of the past, but they come across instead as lazy rip-offs.
That said, there are a few moments that recall the compelling popcraft of the band's self-titled debut. But even here, the songs have a cool, mechanical sheen that's closer in tone to Blondie than to The Pretenders or another of Manson's heroes, Patti Smith.
Interestingly, the second album is truly more of a collaborative effort among the band members. This time out, Manson is responsible for most of the lyrics, so she's partly to blame for the pat lifelessness of Version 2.0. On the preceding album, Manson mostly dramatized words that had been written by the guys, who proved to be cleverer at creating sensual tension and potent put-downs.
When they were planning the first album, the men of Garbage considered assembling a non-performing studio band that featured a revolving cast of singers--much like the Golden Palominos or Massive Attack. Incredibly, they spotted Manson in a video on MTV's 120 Minutes. In the one and only time the video ever appeared on the music channel, Manson was snarling the words to "Suffocate Me," a single by her previous band, Angelfish.
That the band members all saw the clip and all thought Manson could work well with them was either a stroke of immense luck or the height of ego-driven folly. As Manson later put it, her discovery was "a Spinal Tap moment": A band of all-star rock musicians in America spotted a sexy Scottish singer on TV, then ordered her up as if putting in a call to a mail-order catalog.
Manson provided the band with a vocalist whose dark, breathy alto cut through the dense song structures, but she also gave Garbage a personality. Her bandmates gladly handed over the spotlight, and Manson consumed it. Offstage, Vig took to jokingly introducing her as "our little bitch singer," and when it came to media, Manson proved as cheeky in interviews as she was on record. When a reporter for Entertainment Weekly asked the singer if she worried about her credibility when posing for fashion spreads, she responded, "I've been told, 'People won't take you seriously if you do a photo shoot for Elle.' But I don't give a fuck. I don't have any problem with my self-worth."
That's just the kind of attitude Wurtzel celebrates in her book, and it's too bad that Garbage doesn't deliver a second album worthy of Manson's public persona. But then, most of Wurtzel's subjects--who range from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to Amy Fisher and Susan Smith--tend to be tragic or at least difficult to defend. At the same time, Wurtzel recognizes that there's a silent support system between the media and outrageous personalities, especially female ones. Manson plays into that system with gleefully wicked playfulness, taking advantage of it, having fun with it, even exploiting it without seeming to lose herself in it the way so many others have.
But judging from the lackluster Version 2.0--the result of a year of carefully calculated music-making--Manson would be smart to heed the words of Patti Smith. When receiving an Inspiration Award from the English music magazine Q, Smith said, "I just have one thing to say. We must remember that artists are not here to serve the media. Nor is media here to serve artists. If artists and media serve anybody, it's the people, and what have we been doing to serve them? I find all of this really pathetic. I don't need no fuckin' award, but thank you for giving it to me."
That's precisely the attitude that Manson needs to rediscover on Version 2.0. She can talk all she wants to the media, but the interviews don't mean a thing if she can't back them up with music that matters.
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