The most remarkable thing about Garbage may be their ability to change while remaining the same. Each of their five albums has its own distinct vibe. They all include Garbage’s fundamental elements — Shirley Manson’s exquisite voice, the barrage of loops, layers and layers of sound, etc — yet each has its own feel. And it’s certainly to their credit that they’ve made five albums that all have their own unique identity, as opposed to making a bunch of albums that all basically sound the same like so many groups do.
I have to admit that I was nervous the first time I listened to their latest, Not Your Kind Of People. It had been seven years since their previous album, the blazing rock record Bleed Like Me, so I wondered if the magic would still be there. Would they merely go through the motions and try to replicate their first couple of albums, which I believe are the most popular (sales-wise), or were they still capable of getting together and pulling off something wholly original? Well, it only took one listen for me to wonder why I’d ever doubted them. Not Your Kind Of People was a truly inspired work and unlike their previous albums in many ways. But it sure had one thing in common with them — it refused to be pigeonholed into any single genre.
From the opening of track one, “Automatic Systematic Habit,” is was evident that Not Your Kind Of People was going to be a veritable tour-de-force. It was like watching a barrage of comets strike the earth or fireworks exploding in the sky. Those first 22 seconds were awe-inspiring, cinematic and perhaps even a bit otherworldly. Which seemed fitting — the band were pictured wearing sunglasses and looking up at the sky in the band photo in the album’s booklet. Beyond the intro was something of an onslaught of loud, raw guitars, courtesy of Duke Erikson and Steve Marker, and a blend of live drums and loops by Butch Vig. And then, of course, there was Shirley Manson, the group’s red-haired centerpiece. “Lies, lies, lies,” she sang scornfully. “You love those lies.” Initially, it came across like an attack on all liars, but once it hit the venomous chorus it became more personal. “Knocked down, drag your name out, all across the town, I won’t be your dirty little secret,” she sang. It was that assertiveness and honesty that has always elevated Garbage above their peers. You could call some of their music pop — they’ve even described it as such themselves — but Shirley Manson has never been a pop star. No, Shirley is nothing short of a rock star, something she’d prove more times than you could count throughout the album. Take “Battle In Me,” for example. “It’s a bloody war of attrition,” she sang. “Let’s see which one of us is going to last the night.” She was ready for battle indeed. And the chorus, well, it was the heaviest, most brutal thing they’d done since Beautiful Garbage’s “Silence Is Golden” with ear-piercing, strobe-light-like guitars that threatened to induce seizures and some of Butch’s most overpowering drum playing ever. The verses might have been alt-rock, but that chorus — it was sheer metal. And you could say the same of the following track, the raucous “Man On A Wire,” an ode to self-confrontation, to going to war against the person you see in the mirror. “There was a big, black beast, looking back at me,” Shirley sang with more than a hint of anger in her voice.
Not Your Kind Of People was not without its quieter moments as well. The title track was a prime example. A moody, trippy song not unlike “Milk” from their debut album, it was dismissive of negative people, especially phonies and liars. “We are not your kind of people, don’t want to be like you ever in our lives,” Shirley sang over layers and layers of intoxicating sounds that would require multiple listens to fully appreciate. If the song left listeners wondering who *are* Garbage’s kind of people, they only had to wait until track 11 for an answer, which came in the form of the ballad “Beloved Freak.” Beginning with a gentle piano line, it was an exquisitely-produced song — featuring a Klaus Nomi sample — embracing the band’s fans and outcasts everywhere. “So here you stand beloved freak,” Shirley sang. “You’re not alone.” It was the perfect showcase for her heartbreaking vocals, not unlike “Sugar,” during which she sang “I’ve spent a lifetime feeling incomplete.”
One of the album’s strongest songs came in the form of the deluxe edition bonus track “The One.” With racing drums and a thick, luscious bass guitar part, it’s a propulsive song that could have easily opened the album. During the verses Shirley pleads for help, admitting a guy has her feeling unstable — “call me a doctor, I cannot lose control” — but during the chorus she flips things upside down, practically going into stalker mode as she proclaims, “You might be the one for me, you might be the one, the one.” It’s her ability not only to access the full spectrum of human emotions, but to admit to feeling conflicting emotions, that makes her one of her generation’s strongest songwriters, along with the three gentlemen in the band, whom she co-writes each song with. Add to that their superb musicianship, their ability to write killer hooks and their legendary production skills and you have the best band to ever come out of the ’90′s, period. -Michael McCarthy