n the summer of 1995, Garbage’s debut single “Vow” was the real jagged little pill. Far more than anything Alanis Morissette had to offer, Shirley Manson and the boys in her band came with a razor-sharp edge and the music (and lyrics) to back it up: “I came around to tear your little world apart,” indeed. They sounded like the shock of the newish, if not entirely new, and with subsequent singles—“Vow” inexplicably stiffed in the U.S.—detonated like a proverbial bomb. Manson was a next-gen Chrissie Hynde fronting a future-perfect Blondie (she looked great on magazine covers, too), Garbage became music-press darlings, and it looked like some stars were born.
Fast-forward 12 years, and both Garbage and Morissette feel like, if not footnotes exactly, artists whose sell-by dates came much more quickly than anyone could’ve surmised at the time. Garbage’s new Absolute Garbage comp explains why, mostly: after two smashing albums, the band seemed to lose a certain something in translation, if not their execution, and the wheels fell off. Ergo, today they’re seen by most as ‘90s alterna-darlings fallen by the wayside—like so many of their contemporaries, to be sure, but they deserved better.
Garbage’s self-titled debut hummed and fizzed and pop rocked, loaded with slashing guitars, the best drum loops Butch Vig had to offer, and Manson, oozing attitude as she straddled your lap. She was “Queer,” she was “Only Happy When It Rain[ed],” she was a “Stupid Girl”—except she most definitely wasn’t the last, as Manson wrote sheaves of fabulous lyrics, the kind every collegiate lit major wished s/he could write. Another reason Garbage hit so hard? Manson was a classic ball-busting seductress; guys couldn’t look away, and really didn’t want to, even as some knew that it’d all end in tears (theirs). (She may have played the icy-cool coquette in “Milk,” but don’t be fooled; that was her siren song.)
“#1 Crush” came as a between-album petit four from the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack; thanks to its swoony “I would die/burn/feel pain for you” Shakespearean sentiments of love which fit in perfectly with Leonardo DiCaprio’s anguished stares. It was a huge radio hit, even though this slice of paint-by-numbers would’ve been lucky to be the fifth single from Garbage. It kept their name out there, though, which was basically the point.
Then came the sleekly fuzzed-out machinations of “Push It,” the first single from the superbly named Version 2.0, a next-gen record that truly advanced the ideas set forth on their debut. The band also showed off more of their influences here, with Manson cribbing from the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” in “Push It,” and making her theft much more wholesale on “Special,” blatantly stealing from the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town.” It’s not all theft, though: note the way she sings “I’m lookin’ for you” before she goes into her Pretenders coda; nothing could make Manson’s Hynde-worship more obvious. “When I Grow Up,” meanwhile, references golden showers as the synths throb a la Moroder. Another movie theme followed, this time the big-league Bond song “The World Is Not Enough.” It’s perfect for what it is, and you’ll forget it five minutes after hearing it.
The singles from Beautiful Garbage exhibit a much shinier pop sheen, but that’s to a fault. “Cherry Lips” would sound like a revelation from one of today’s teen-pop tarts, but from Garbage it was utterly disappointing, a huge step back. “Shut Your Mouth” just sounds too easy/lazy. They dialed back the candy and turned up the guitars on 2005’s Bleed Like Me, which only served to make them sound like the out-of-touch ‘90s refugees they’d so sadly become. The likes of “Why Do You Love Me” and the album’s title track would sound fine on the radio next to Stone Temple Pilots and (gasp) Third Eye Blind—but STP’s gone, and if 3EB aren’t, they might as well be. Music has moved on, but it sounds now like Garbage hasn’t at all.
Perhaps, then, chalk Garbage up as one of the ‘90s’ true supernovas: they burned brightly, but burned out fast. When you’re burning that hotly, it’s hard to keep it up. Absolute Garbage makes a fine reminiscence, a gift from a party that was fun for its time but left a nasty hangover.