You’re so like a rose/I wish you could stay here…
-‘So Like a Rose’
It turns out the third time wasn’t the charm.
After two platinum selling albums, seven Grammy nominations (including Album of the Year and Best Rock Album nods for Version 2.0), and a James Bond theme song (‘The World is Not Enough’), Garbage had established themselves as one of the biggest names in the 90s music scene. The band had carved a nice niche for themselves, taking alt-rock and giving it a shiny, sci-fi pop makeover. But where were they to go after that? The 90s had ended, and music shifted drastically in 2000. Many 90s artists struggled to hang on to their relevance. Return of Saturn, No Doubt’s much anticipated followup to their mammoth hit, Tragic Kingdom, failed to connect with listeners and the band did a drastic image revamp with Rock Steady, an stubbornly banal ode to Jamaican Dancehall and club music. They were a rare success story. Garbage unfortunately was not as lucky, which is a shame because their third album, beautifulgarbage (the name taken from lyrics of the Hole song, ‘Celebrity Skin’), was a flawed but genuinely weird and compelling pop album from the early aughts.
Love of The Moment: An Ode to Hip Hop
In an interview with Spin magazine following the release of the band’s comeback album, Not Your Kind of People, Shirley Manson discussed the band’s discography. When beautifulgarbage came up, she remarked:
‘This record has long been dismissed as the weak link in our discography, but we feel differently. We were in love with hip-hop artists and how they approached record making. We wanted to try things that weren’t supposed to be within our grasp as a “rock” band.’
Manson raises an interesting point about wanting to expand the limits of what a rock band could and couldn’t do. Garbage had already shown how well pop, trip-hop, and electronica can blend with alt rock. Similarly, the band consisted of three veteran producers, so they had an ear for how to imitate and distort different musical genres. Unlike No Doubt, their approach toward genres like hip hop and R&B came from general admiration and love, not just a crass commercial attempt to stay in the spotlight. They wanted to push the limits, but did they want to reinvent themselves?
Eh, hard to say. The album was a commercial flop (more on that in a bit), so it’s hard to say where Garbage would have gone had the album been a success. In contrast to the Erykah Badu/Common song, I doubt hip hop was the love of their life. But, listening to the album and watching the music videos, it’s never less than apparent their appreciation for the genre (along with power pop and 60s girl groups), mistakes and all, gave this grand exercise in experimentation a bit more clout.
Shut Your Mouth: Making of an Album
When making beautifulgarbage, Manson kept an online blog (she was one of the first major singers to do this) detailing the songwriting and producing process. It was an uncanny bit of marketing to keep fans interested. However, when the album dropped, the response was, well, complicated.
The opening track, ‘Shut Your Mouth,’ a bouncy, sample-heavy rock song, is the best possible bridge between the alt rock/electro-pop weirdness of Version 2.0 to the quasi-hip hop weirdness of this album. The thundering wah-wah guitars, coupled with Manson’s take-no-prisoners vocals, give the album a nice energetic start.
However, this would inexplicably be the album’s final single. What could have been a gradual ‘easing into the album’ was instead replaced with ‘Androgyny,’ a slick R&B style tune all about the joys of sexual experimentation.
The single failed to make much of an impression on the charts, in all likelihood because no-one knew what to make of it. Garbage was still synonymous with alt-rock and electronica, so to see them shed it seemingly overnight in favor of showing their love for R&B probably put off a few potential buyers. In hindsight, the song represents what was to come on the album. Manson, shearing her trademark ruby locks in favor of a cropped boyish ‘do and later a platinum blonde cut (Manson would later admit to having split from her husband, and the radical change in appearance was a byproduct of it), dialing down her scary-sexy persona in favor of something sweeter, gentler. The supervixen behind ‘Queer’ and ‘Sleep Together,’ was now musing about wanting to get along and declaring, ‘You free your mind in your androgyny!’ Again, it was a drastic change and perhaps a little too much, too soon.
‘Untouchable’: The Queerest of the Queer
The penultimate track of beautifulgarbage best illustrates both the band’s love of hip hop and their willingness to experiment. More than any other track, its weirdness lies in how Garbage made a song that sounded like it belonged on a Destiny Child’s CD. It’s not the best song of the bunch (although it has its fun edge), but it works in its own odd way, if for no other reason than it sounds like nothing the band has previously accomplished. All rock elements are jettisoned, and the production wizardry of Vig, Marker, Erikson are in full force. It works… and yet, that captures the biggest problem with the beautifulgarbage: it can feel more like a big experiment rather than a cohesive album.
Breaking Up The Girl: The beautiful sadness of beautifulgarbage
If there was one song that summed up the album in a nutshell, it would be their third single, ‘Breaking Up The Girl,’ a ‘lets-move-on’ tune that secretly doubles as a lugubrious rumination of the constant pressure to change and reinvent oneself in the music scene.
If the band had dialed down its more intense sex appeal, it hadn’t lost its undercurrent of sadness. The album sounds less noisy and angry than the first two, but the newfound happiness comes with its own expiration date: ‘enjoy it now, because it will all end at some point.’ This is most evident on gloomy ballads like ‘Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Drive You Home,’ both wistful recollections of broken love. The quiet melancholy pervades even bouncy power pop tracks like ‘Parade’ (Oh, doctor/We’re dying/There’s no use in crying/So live for tomorrow’).
However, its the closing track, ‘So Like a Rose’ that lays bare all the melancholy beneath the shiny pop surface. If ‘Milk’ and ‘You Look So Fine,’ the closing tracks for the previous albums were songs about broken love, ‘So Like A Rose’ is a heartbreaking song about a young person choosing to opt out of life. This isn’t exactly new terrain for pop music, but Manson’s saturnine vocals, matched with the song’s almost My Bloody Valentine-esque icy ambience take the cliché and give it the gut wrenching punch it needs. It still retains its power to send chills over a decade later.
Anything But Garbage
As I mentioned earlier, the album commercially crashed and burned. Following the commercial success of Garbage and Version 2.0, beautifulgarbage only sold a little more than 200,000 copies. In her interview with Spin, Manson said, ‘On the day we were meant to start promoting it, September 11 happened, and that, as they say, was that.’ A lack of promotion, coupled with ‘Androgyny’ failing to make an impact on the charts, and a relative lack of singles, broke Garbage’s spell as makers of weird, commercially successful pop music.
Nevertheless, the album wasn’t a complete failure; it was a hit in Australia and spent seven consecutive weeks as #1 on Billboard’s Top Electronic Albums. Similarly, the band enjoyed a successful world tour, and was labelled one of the Best Albums of 2001 by Rolling Stone.
Revisiting this album, it’s easier to see its strangeness. When the album was first released, Pop Matters said, ‘For the first time in their history, Garbage sounds like they just want to fit in. The problem is that they do.’ They do… to a point. At the end of the day, they just want to have fun and their audacity to see how they can blend in with the musical trends of the new millennium is odd in and of itself.
It’s not their strongest album, but Beautifulgarbage is the band at their most self-consciously eclectic, and while it can border on gimmicky, it’s an interesting experiment; a pop album with some character, which is more than what can be said about a lot of music from 2001. It deserved more recognition.
Next Week: The band’s fury returns with a vengeance with the aptly titled fourth album, Bleed Like Me.