On their winning new album No Gods No Masters, Garbage look back at the past few years and has formulated a response with a great collection of new tunes. The last few years have been trying, and there has been some profound pop art that has risen to answer back to a world done in by the elections of madmen, Brexit, police murdering unarmed Black men, a reckoning of sexual harassment throughout various industries, Nazis marching in the streets, a violent Capitol insurrection, and a global pandemic. Frontwoman Shirley Manson summed up No Gods No Masters as “our way of trying to make sense of how fucking nuts the world is and the astounding chaos we find ourselves in”. She characterizes the new LP – the band’s seventh – as “the record we felt that we had to make at this time”.
Arguably their most political record, No Gods No Masters is simultaneously novel and familiar: the lyrics and themes are timely and a stark reflection of the oft-overwhelming feelings of angst over the past few years. Yet the sounds on the record – a spikey, thick amalgam of guitar rock, electronic pop, and post-grunge – will feel recognizable to listeners who followed the band since their 1995 self-titled debut. Longtime collaborator Billy Bush has returned to create a large, expansive sound, booming with fuzzy, buzzy guitars, trip hop loops, and loping drums. Manson remains as charismatic and magnetic as ever with urgent vocals and empathetic lyrics.
When Garbage engage with topical and social issues, the record transcends its pop radio-friendly safeness to make a profound contribution to the growing work of pop art that has been created in response to societal ills. There’s an urgency and a bit in the band’s approach to a protest song, with Manson emerging as a powerful super “shero”.
The record opens with the insightful “The Men Who Rule the World”, a damning condemnation of the corruption of untethered capitalism and craven political leadership. The song starts with the sounds of a slot machine, before a chugging beat pulses forward, pulling Manson’s sneering, outraged vocals. Though the lyrics are sharp and unsparing, the chorus – a power-pop of crunchy guitars – is catchy, belying the contempt of the sentiments behind the lyrics.
And in the album’s most stirring and devastating track, “Waiting for God”, Manson sings a dirge inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the police murders of unarmed Black men. The ominous beat tick-tocks like a tragic clock timing the much-needed intervention of the God in the song’s title. The lyrics are emotionally naked with Manson’s mournful vocals underscoring just how sad and dreadful the state of race in the world is.
God is mentioned again in “Godhead” a pulsing, industrial dance track that attempts to rip apart misogyny and sexism. The song’s an epic electro-rock song with screechy guitars and purring, whispered vocals that sound kittenish and sexy in biting irony. The song’s profane hook (“If I had a dick, would you know it? If I had a dick, would you blow it?) works toward rebellious subversive commentary.
And when commenting on the seeming inherent chaos and complexity of life and the choices that people make – including voting – Garbage work out these feelings of existential angst with the brisk and bracing title track, a speedy swirl of industrial noise, and undulating guitars. Manson’s edgy vocals perfectly capture the song’s message of uncertainty, but there’s an inevitability in the face of the madness of our world when Manson belts, “The future is mine just the same / No master or gods to obey.”
Though No Gods No Masters is the band’s most explicitly political work, there are other themes explored on the record. “Uncomfortably Me”, a sleek mid-tempo pop ballad embraces tones and shadings of confessional singer-songwriter rock as filtered through Garbage’s tech-driven sound. “Anonymous XXX” finds the band incorporating some light funk into their patented sound to solid effect. And the creeping, menacing “A Woman Destroyed” creates a striking portrait of revenge and retribution. And just as 1970s funk found its way in “Anonymous XXX”, Garbage pay homage to Depeche Mode and Duran Duran in the 1980s New Wave synthpop pastiche “Flipping the Bird”.
But the greatest moment on No Gods and No Masters is its closer. The epic ballad “This City Will Kill You” is a marvelous way to end the album. It’s a deliriously camp, dramatic pop ballad with overwhelming, crashing walls of synth and strings that unfurl dramatically, as Manson croons about the complicated and contradictory feelings she experiences. There are moments of orchestral pop, cinema score, and even hints of James Bond (which makes sense as Garbage recorded their own Bond theme in 1999).
Longtime fans of Garbage will recognize a lot on No Gods and No Masters. The sounds are classic Garbage and the band delivers exactly what its audience wants: extravagant, sharp, industrial pop-rock with brushes of synths. Manson is still one of the most compelling frontwomen, with a distinct voice and attitude. Where the music takes a surprising turn is when the band uses their music to process their feelings and thoughts over what’s been happening in the world for the past five, six years (when they released their previous album). Despite the challenge of taking on weighty, topical material, the excellence of No Gods and No Masters is a testament to the collective talent of the band – Manson, along with Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, Butch Vig, and producer Billy Bush prove to be remarkably consistent. It’s a fine outing from an outfit that continues to make compelling music.