The dawn of a new year, and once again a few posts have appeared from both musical and so-called clickbait sources noting the albums that are turning twenty years old during 2015. For many of my friends and I, this is starting to hit hard – many of these are the albums that we were mad about when we were teenagers and helped to shape our future tastes. I turned seventeen in 1995, so indeed, like 1994, a lot of my favourite albums even now came from around that time. So, I’ll be returning to my occasional Rearviewmirror series a few times this year to assess a few of those albums from 1995, and I’m sure there will be one or two that haven’t stood the test of time.
Garbage, though, is one that really has.
It hit many like a bolt from the blue, too. A heady mix of pop, quasi-industrial rock, grunge and shoegaze, it sold steadily from release and has, to date, sold well beyond four million copies. Let that sink in a moment.
This was a band of three US alt.rock producers and a Scottish singer from an obscure indie band they’d discovered on MTV, selling millions with their first album.
A different world, eh?
More than anything, the success of this album was a question of timing. Grunge had faded away, in the UK Britpop had started to rule the roost by this point, and beginning to co-exist was the heady rush of the Big-Beat electronic scene led by the likes of The Chemical Brothers (and interestingly, it was that, rather than Britpop, that hit it big in the US). But as well, industrial was still very much in the alternative mainstream, if you will, thanks to the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and many others, so there was precedent for what Garbage was doing.
Their first (very, very limited) single announced the band in quite a hit, too. Vow was a crackling, seething ball of emotion, a four-and-a-half-minute warning of furious revenge dominated by an instantly recognisable, woozy-sounding treated guitar and Shirley Manson’s bitter vocal.
The thing is, things could have worked out very differently after Vow. The follow-up single was a limited edition release in the UK that suggested a very different potential direction. Subhuman was a thundering industrial rock behemoth, with a very different vocal performance from Shirley Manson (and one I was lucky enough to see live back in 1996, too!), while #1 Crush was an elegant, aching gothic-tinged ballad that initially seemed wasted on such a rare single – but made it eventually to the mainstream in a remixed form, as the lead track to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Apparently Subhuman was never meant to be on the album – and it is so different to everything else they did that it isn’t hard to see why – but what it does offer is a tantalising glimpse of what might have been if they did.
Instead, the first single to get a full release was a strangely joyous pop song – Only Happy When It Rains. Poking fun at Manson’s compatriots back home in Scotland, despite the miserable subject matter it absolutely soared, with a glorious chorus and catchy-as-hell melodies, and was the first of a ten-year run of UK top thirty singles (some feat for an “alternative” band, really) – and one of five singles from the album. It also made clear that this was a band with some very-much non-mainstream influences capable of doing very much mainstream pop.
Following that came a curveball, and one that suggested that beneath the gleaming production lay a darker side. Queer was a wonderfully quirky, oh-so-slightly-sleazy track that had a shuffling, trip-hop-esque beat, layered vocals, and was surely too odd? Nope, it charted even higher.
The song that really pushed the band into becoming A Big Deal, though, was the one that for me is the weakest of the singles from the album. Stupid Girl was a massive hit in the UK and US, with the defiance of the lyrics and – note the pattern here – massive hook of a chorus, powered forward by the use of much of the undercarriage of The Clash’s Train In Vain, culminating in the pummelling close out that finally halts the momentum of the rhythm.
The last single from the album was a curious one, the album closer Milk. By no means a bad song, it was just a strange choice for me, but then maybe their radio pluggers and/or label had decided that it was time for a ballad. At least the smooth, AM-radio tones of the track were enlivened somewhat on the single release, with Tricky lending his vocals to a much-remixed version.
What was really great about this album, though, is that there really was no filler. Of the twelve songs on it, at least nine could have been singles (and five of them were). One of those that wasn’t was the blistering opening track Supervixen, which took the quietLOUD concept to extremes with the intro and chorus being dense and loud, and the verses being as sparse and quiet as they could, as Manson warns the listener exactly what they were letting themselves in for.
The rock was also brought by the choppy riffage and bitter regret of Not My Idea, while Dog New Tricks bludgeoned the senses a bit by seemingly being about three notches louder than Stupid Girl, which preceded it on the album.
The sleek electronics that pulsed through every song on the album, though, rarely broke out to dominate a song on it, the main exception being the ghostly As Heaven Is Wide, where the guitars are reduced to a fuzzy drone and the electronics chime warnings behind more embittered, revenge-oriented vocals. Many have noted how much like Curve the band were at points, and perhaps this song shows that influence more than any other on the album.
There was more, too. The other ballad on the album, A Stroke of Luck, provided a breather at the mid-point and was a gorgeous, swooning track that frankly was better than Milk by a mile. Two other brilliant tracks – rarely played live in a long while, that’s for sure – were tucked away near the close of the album, too. My Lover’s Box was another quietLOUD take, dominated by the plaintive cry of a chorus from Manson that took the age-old trope of bringing together sex and religion, before the track explodes in a glitterburst of near-ecstasy, taking us into the equally brilliant Fix Me Now. A counterpoint lyrically to the bravado of the earlier songs (and singles in particular), this is a cry for help (of sorts), needing a white knight, after all, to get through those bad days. Yet again, though, this song is all about the astounding chorus, which hits ridiculous heights with the use of multiple Shirleys.
As I realised a few years back when seeing the band for the first time in sixteen years, we Garbage fans are a dedicated bunch. Perhaps some of this stems not only from the quality of the songs but also from what the band did with their material. Like the succession of collectable, startlingly-designed single releases, the great B-sides (the cover of The Jam’s Butterfly Collector that backed Queer in particular is extraordinary), and their – compared to many other bands of the time – rare live appearances, which meant you really had to make an effort to see them live for a while. But back to those songs – without such a glorious album, they would never have had the springboard that saw them, a good few years later, even perform the opening theme for a James Bond film, and Shirley Manson becomes an actress too for a while.
Ok, so not all that they did afterwards was appreciated at the time, but maybe I needed some distance from it to love some of the later material – as I, I’m sure like many others, always used this debut as a yardstick that nothing else ever matched up to. That last album (Not Your Kind of People) a few years ago, though, was actually very good indeed, and seemed to kickstart a rush of interest, and likely a bit of nostalgia too, in the band again for many.
And twenty years on from that debut, the cycle apparently begins again in 2015, with a handful of dates already in Central America, surely more elsewhere to come, and apparently the sixth album too. Bring it on.