Absolute Garbage is the sound of a band completely destroying themselves ...
... and it sounds awesome.
For those late to the party, Garbage were the mid-‘90s poster children for alt-rock angst, all electro-rock fury with a keen pop sensibility. Consisting of three producers (Steve Marker, Duke Erikson, and Nevermind-helmer Butch Vig) and bombshell vocalist Shirley Manson, the group custom-built a sound that was high on melodrama but short on indulgence. Their self-titled debut simply wouldn’t stop spawning rock radio staples, and their high-concept video clips (which only got more elaborate with time) were soon filling MTV’s lingering post-Nirvana void. Though they turned into a tight touring band, the group soon got exhausted by their road treks, a fatigue that bled into the studio, leading Vig to become a studio perfectionist, each album becoming more calculated than the last. However, Garbage—over the course of four full-lengths—has yet to release an end-to-end masterpiece. With this, their long-awaited best-of, they come pretty damn close.
Unlike most greatest hits comps these days, Absolute Garbage is chronologically sequenced, starting with their first single (“Vow”) and ending with the dreaded “new recording exclusive to his release!” Yet, the sequencing is what makes this disc such a divine pleasure: we get to hear a band grow from grinning upstarts to tension-battered road warriors. This process is reflected entirely in the music, giving Absolute Garbage a tension that their previous releases flirted with but never fully revealed.
Twelve years after it’s initial release, “Vow” retains its punch. Starting with channel-swapping guitar whiffs, Manson launches into a relationship-destroying tirade that is cuffed to a killer pop chorus, all while Vig pretends that he’s the grunge-era answer to Phil Spector. This feeds right into a string of contemporary classics: “Queer”, “Only Happy When It Rains”, and “Stupid Girl”. In listening to these songs all over again, it’s no wonder that the group’s eponymous debut blew up in the way that it did. This opening stretch is topped off by “Milk” (a great single that never actually charted, even though it painted Manson as a glam-pop balladeer who could easily rewrite Madonna’s “Justify My Love” for a black eyeliner generation) and “#1 Crush” (which itself hailed from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which [oddly] turned out to be the watermark for every major alt-rock act of the ‘90s).
Yet, already, the group was facing massive pressure. How does one follow up a massively multi-platinum debut that spawned no more than five hit singles? The group locked themselves in the studio and worked non-stop, layering every song with dozens upon dozens of elements, instruments, and vocal tracks. It is in this process that Garbage lost a lot of what made the first album so appealing: the sheer effortless nature of the tracks. Even though “Stupid Girl” totally copped its drums from the Clash’s “Train in Vain”, the group never smirked and said “guess what we sampled!” Each meticulous song felt very off-the-cuff, which was a monumental feat in its own right.
Version 2.0, however, had not a moment of spontaneity. Every single note was in place for a specific reason, and the group wasted not a second of their time. While the album should have been produced within an inch of its life, Marker, Erikson & Vig all knew how to keep things to the point. As a matter of fact, “Push It” remains the group’s single greatest pop achievement to date, even though it has enough synths to kill a horse (or at least Rick Wakeman). The group went as far as to “interpolate” the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” right into pre-chorus, once again applying the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” model to their own style of traffic-jam distortion.
This is followed by their second greatest pop achievement, “I Think I’m Paranoid”. It’s a rare Garbage track that places up its Guitars Only velvet rope, and it manages to be one of their most pulverizing. Yet, here is where Manson’s lyrical paradigm begins to shift, moving from the middle-finger mantras of their debut to a sense of self-doubt and sabotaged optimism. “You look so fine / I want to break your heart / and give you mine” she coos on mid-tempo “You Look So Fine”, before declaring herself the alpha-female and saying “I won’t share it like the other girls / that you used to know”.
Manson switches yet again by taking the submissive role on “When I Grow Up”—a snotty adolescent guitar-bash that wrote the book that Avril Lavigne so lovingly photocopied a few years later. Though Version 2.0 was a slow-selling album at first, the parade of singles made it another platinum hit, culminating in (of all things) an Album of the Year nomination at the 1998 Grammy Awards. Yes, an Album of the Year nomination part-way bestowed on Shirley Manson, the girl who—as prominently displayed in the video for “I Think I’m Paranoid”—can fit her entire fist in her mouth.
Unfortunately, the fun and games would soon come to a screeching halt. During a European tour, Manson discovered a lump on her breast, leading to doctor visits and group anxiety. It was found out to be a benign tumor, and was soon removed. This gave her a new, happier outlook on life—an aspect that found its way into recording their third effort, Beautiful Garbage. Replacing the grit with keyboards and angst for coffee shops, Garbage transformed themselves into an electro-pop outfit, which, in retrospect, was a huge mistake.
Manson played the bubbling girly-girl role well, but couldn’t match Gwen Stefani’s all-too-blond approach to the same subject matter. Manson works better when she’s dealing with high drama, something that made itself known when the group followed the template of another Shirley (in this case, Bassey) on their top-notch Bond theme, “The World is Not Enough”. When compared to the Beautiful Garbage lead single “Androgyny”, the argument is almost laughably one-sided. Yet, this being a smart greatest-hits compilation, “Androgyny” is completely dropped from the play list. It’s a smart move, especially considering that beneath the colorful exterior of the bouncy “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)”, there lied a sinister undertone (which is something that was brought out on that album’s following tour).
A happy Garbage, however, is a poor Garbage. Their third album tanked, the band all blamed each other, and when recording time came, they could barely hold together as a four-piece. So when three of your four members are producers, what do you do to resolve this conflict? Bring in John King of the Dust Brothers (Beck, the Beastie Boys, the Fight Club soundtrack). The group threw out all the bubbly optimism for muddy guitars, like a pissed-off cousin to their debut. This move was no-doubt intentional, as Beautiful Garbage alienated a good portion of their audience. However, King’s dry cut’n'paste sounds didn’t work for a group that worked best as overproduced guitar-rock gluttons. It did wonders on the title track of their fourth album, “Bleed Like Me”. Though the ballad certainly bordered a bit too much on the emo side, it still was one of their best songs in about five years.
Bleed Like Me was a success (even if it didn’t match the commercial heights of their debut), and even the “new recording exclusive to this release!”—the majestic, sweeping “Tell Me Where It Hurts”—manages to accomplish the rare compilation feat of not being completely worthless. The whole set is closed out by a down-tempo remix of the Bleed track “It’s All Over But the Crying”, not sounding lost in the void between Version 2.0 and “The World is Not Enough”. It’s not a firecracker of a closer, but it doesn’t need to be—the journey here was epic enough.
One could sit and nick-pick Absolute Garbage all day long, sighing over the fact that a lot of fan-favorites are left by the wayside (like “Medication” and “Right Between the Eyes”), but such a fine-toothed comb criticism belies the point: here we have a greatest-hits compilation that not only rounds up every single the group ever released, but also manages to leave the worst one out (“Androgyny”). It has a Bond theme, a great new song, and—most importantly—you get the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing a group tear itself apart as time goes on. Is Garbage the single-greatest thing to ever happen to pop music? Of course not. More importantly, the group never claimed to be: they just made high-energy rock music with an electronic edge. They have no regrets about their career, and after listening to this album straight through, neither will you.
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// Notes from the Road
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