London Brixton Academy
You load the CD-Rom, and sit back as the images fly. You’ve got your headset on, your virtual touchpads connecting you to what you’ve been assured will be ‘the live experience’, and then out they come, a pixellated series of virtual messages, in front of your eyes. There they go! The backdrop: part bubble-wrap, part ’60s lavatory, very possibly a family pack of Rennie indigestion tablets, lit in the harsh orange light of obligatory alienation.
The band: all strobe-lit and disguised in black, the uniform of the wilfully obscure and soon-to-be obsolete. Then the singer, prancing, eerily reminiscent of either a startled goldfish or the goth Kylie, skipping slightly madly and telling us how she feels. And through the gloves, through the sensors, up through the goggles and into the nervous system, you still feel… well… Precisely nothing. Sometimes, basically, you can go too far into the black. Not into pain, not into exploring the reasons it all goes wrong, or the torment, none of those things. Sometimes you can go through that and end up instead at the big shrug, the big swathe of dry indifference to feeling, the big whatever, where there’s only resignation to your ultimate despair, and a vague resolution to talk wittily until it arrives, reconciled to your own cynicism.
And in the blue corner, wearing the leatherette and representing postmodern ennui, we present… Garbage! Garbage, you see, are clever, and they love it. Not to say that here in Shirley Manson they don’t have a largely unpretentious and agreeably screwed-up singer (though, really: “This is for everyone who lives in London. This is ‘Queer’.” Like, whatever…), and not that they don’t occasionally have a fantastic Evian Ministry moment like ‘Vow’. But really: ‘Version 2.0’ – technological pop – the feeling that Garbage are merely relishing the perfection of the format they have devised for expressing their woes always hijacks the mainframe, and downloads the indifference. The sensors, though, detect no mean blips of enthusiasm.
Like one large, pointed goatee beard with a stud through the lower lip, the Academy roars to the highly-sequenced sounds of emotional brinkmanship. Christ, what a chore it must be to be in Garbage. Forget the middle ground of fondness, indifference and drizzle: here it’s thunder and hatred and betrayal and perversion and blood and torment, one big student drama production of Macbeth in bondage. And did she beat ye with a rubber hose? Aye, my liege. Not half she did. And she does repeatedly. Through the hits (like ‘Stupid Girl’, the one ray of positivity) and the shockingly misplaced efforts at humanity (this week’s cover version of Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’), we are basically still locked in love’s techno dungeon, all thrusting groin and submission with no hope of parole.
But never does it ever threaten to surprise, or go beyond its predetermined, knowing limits; never will it spoil the look. It’s Nine Inch Varnished Nails. You could blame Butch Vig, of course. Here happily sequestered behind the drums, it’s nonetheless difficult to forget that this is the man with the airbrush touch for contemporary angst: who put the pop sheen onto ‘Nevermind’, and now is the guiding force behind these swaying uglies and the woman who sings. Like the bubble-wrap backdrop suggests, Garbage is just a piece of hardware that he happens to have designed, a package, that needs protection for its fragile components.
The abiding feeling, though, is worse than that. It’s that all this is consumed like so much addictive but nutrition-free fizzy drink: the packaging’s great, the blipverts that you see for it on MTV don’t trouble your concentration, but basically, it tastes of nothing. Like, where is the beauty? Always the way with these computer things. So youtake off the goggles, the gloves, and remove the CD-ROM, and set about something worthwhile. Some typing, possibly. Or maybe your expenses.