Ah, Garbage, how I loved thee when I was 13. Garbage’s self-titled debut, released in 1995, was kind of a mixed bag overall — you have to skip through to the good stuff. But it managed to reference all the music I liked in the ’90s, from industrial to trip-hop, and repackage it in a radio-friendly, million-selling format. It helped that singer Shirley Manson was a fabulous frontwoman. Version 2.0, the band’s sophomore outing, released in 1998, was a well-crafted, slick-sounding album, on which nearly every track sounded like a hit single (and several were).
But the new millennium has not been quite as kind to Garbage. When the band released Beautiful Garbage in 2001, I figured I’d outgrown them. That may have been unfair, since that album was generally regarded by critics as musically adventurous even though it was a commercial disappointment, released into a very changed pop/rock landscape that was much less friendly to lady rock singers. In keeping with the themes explored in lead single “Androgyny” and its follow-up “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!),” which alluded to JT LeRoy’s novel Sarah, Manson incorporated androgyny into her own personal aesthetic. And in a culture that punishes gender variance, this may have been one factor in dampening Garbage’s commercial appeal.
Bleed Like Me, which debuted at number four on the charts — the band’s highest debut ever — would appear to be something of a comeback, not just in the commercial sense, but because the band nearly broke up while recording it. The band hired Dust Brother John King to produce the album, but their first-ever attempt at outsourcing didn’t work out, and opener “Bad Boyfriend” was the only song from those sessions to make the cut. Despite the marked emphasis on guitars rather than synthesizers, Bleed Like Me isn’t a departure; Garbage mostly plays to its strengths here, without fully reinterpreting them. Manson’s caustic/sexy vocal delivery (some might call this the “Supervixen” persona, to borrow an old song title) on “Bad Boyfriend,” for instance, is so in character that it’s practically self-parody. But it’s still a pretty infectious song, setting the tone for the album with its raunchy, propulsive guitar lick.
I would’ve loved the melodramatic title track, with its gentle but pointed “you should see my scars” entreaty, when I was 13. My best friend and I would have written its lyrics all over our textbook covers. “Metal Heart” and “Boys Wanna Fight” are classic Garbage, moody and arranged with an eye for detail. The album’s catchiest song, “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” declares that “a revolution is the solution,” and although the band could certainly be accused of tossing around oversimplifications, their refusal to over-intellectualize a political issue is refreshing.
Not every track is so appealing, and the lyrics still measure more sardonic than profound. But Garbage manages to deliver the carefully constructed songs and memorable hooks their fans would expect while mixing things up just enough to keep them interested. Bleed Like Me could very well recruit the next generation of Garbage fans — advancing a few young students from the School of Avril to the School of Shirley would definitely be a bonus.