“Let’s bomb the factory
That makes all the wannabes
Let’s burst all the bubbles
That brainwash the masses…”
In the early ‘70s, that lyric would have signified a kinship with the burgeoning punk movement, and would almost surely have never popped up on the radio. It’s a symbol of the massive shift in popular taste since then that those words appear not on the latest Clash-inspired three-chord diatribe, but rather on the third and most radio-ready album from pure pop group Garbage.
In truth, Garbage is perhaps the most pure and quintessential modern pop act there is. Since their debut in 1996, they’ve excelled at dressing up sugary, disposable tunes in ear-catching modern production techniques. Their records sound amazing, which is no real surprise, considering that Garbage is a collective of session producers. (Butch Vig, perhaps the best-known member of the band prior to their debut, is the man who made Nirvana’s Nevermind.) That they’re also impeccably written is somewhat more unexpected, but three for three, Garbage has crafted some of the most winning and winsome pop music around.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of pop music. I’m a melody addict, a sure sucker for a well-crafted tune. Contrary to popular belief, the three-minute marvel is not an easy thing to write well – as exhibit A, the prosecution recommends that you flip the radio dial anywhere and listen for half an hour. You’re bound to hear some poorly written, sanitized, commercially-oriented crap posing as pop music, no matter what station you tune in. Pop, as defined by Gershwin, Newbern and the like, and as refined by the Beatles, has always been about the songwriting. It celebrates the power of a well-shaped melodic line. A perfect example is the Beatles’ classic “Here, There and Everywhere” – a single, unbroken melodic thought that doesn’t waste a nanosecond of its two minutes and 26 seconds.
This is the type of pop music that Garbage writes. Every song is labored over, because it takes an amazing amount of work to craft something that sounds effortless. The joy of a Garbage album lies in their ability to make classic pop sound thoroughly modern. Their records breeze by you in a blur of guitars, drums and nifty noises, and yet you remember every song when you’re done. You know those unforgettable records Phil Spector used to make? Well, if he were still making music today, he’d undoubtedly come up with something like Garbage.
Beautifulgarbage finds them shaking the formula up just a bit. The production is even more impressive this time than on previous discs, and more diverse. The first song, “Shut Your Mouth,” will leave your jaw on the floor if you’re not ready for it. Every few seconds the sonics shift, and when the guitars hit max volume and density for a few seconds, it’s only to accentuate the silence surrounding them. It’s the sharpest opening salvo they’ve fired yet, a quick, vulgar burst that’s still unmistakably a pop song.
Elsewhere, though, the band embraces more classic definitions of pop, from the doo-woppy “Can’t Cry These Tears” (which sounds like a Supremes cover filtered through Trent Reznor’s sensibilities) to the lilting “Drive You Home,” a song reminiscent of David Lynch’s forays with Julee Cruse. “Cherry Lips” is a stunner, a synthesized number that’s more about the holes in its sound than the notes plugging them. The closing track, “So Like a Rose,” is a torch ballad that builds in quiet intensity. None of these songs sound quite like anything the group has done before.
Sure, the old Garbage is firmly in evidence on superb rave-ups like “Til the Day I Die” and the first single, “Androgyny,” but even these numbers seem infused with a new, more intense verve. The song quoted above, “Parade,” is perhaps the best of these, built like a 40-story-high layer cake. There’s so much to it that you can peel away pieces of the sound all day, and you’ll always be left with more.
As usual, you can contrast the sheer joy of the sound with the self-destructive quality of Shirley Manson’s lyrics. Garbage’s main irony has always been its sugarcoated treatment of Manson’s uncensored sentiments, so much so that if you don’t read the lyrics, you’ll never know how utterly depressing each of their albums is. (Matthew Sweet also excels at this, as does Aimee Mann.) Truth is, angst is the new pop, largely thanks to Vig’s zeitgeist-altering proteges from Seattle. Garbage embraces this concept like few groups playing today. Oh, sure, those serious-looking alt-rock singers on MTV emote well, but they’re not enjoying their pain the way Manson is. She makes it fun to watch her implode.
The coolest thing about Garbage, to me, is their purposeful disposability. While the majority of modern acts work overtime to make Big, Important Albums that are Lasting and Meaningful, every Garbage record has a use-once-and-throw-away feel about it that’s refreshing. Even their band name reflects this. Ironically, the almost invisible songcraft inherent in each track on Beautifulgarbage gives these frothy ditties a better chance at immortality than any flavor-of-the-week hit you could name. Remember, most experts believed in 1963 that “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was a fad, and almost 40 years later, I bet every one of you reading this can hum it. Garbage is cut from the same cloth, and molded in the same tradition. There’s nothing self-important or earth-shattering about Beautifulgarbage, which is precisely why I like it so much.
I was thinking about this the other day. If I were to make the Year-End Top 10 List right now, with three months of releases left to go, it would be the best list in three or four years, no question. Just the top five, which at this point probably won’t change before year’s end, outmatches all 15 of last year’s picks combined. If Eminem had come out swinging this year, he wouldn’t have had a chance.
Anyway, next week, I play catch-up with the biggest column you’ve ever seen. Hope you’re ready…
See you in line Tuesday morning.