It would be an understatement to say that Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson has never been one to suffer fools. On every magazine cover in the ‘90s, she was calling people out on their bullshit and spotlighting prejudice. Her Instagram account is a one-woman battle for justice, and she even used her acceptance speech for the 2018 NME Icon Award to demand everyone in the room do their bit for gender diversity at festivals. In these dumpster fire times we’re living in, did you really think she’d let all the horror go unchecked?
As well as their bite, colour and stance as champions of “the queerest of the queer” – as she put it on 1995’s ‘Queer’ – Garbage have always been outliers. Their first multimillion-selling albums, 1995’s self-titled and 1998’s ‘Version 2.0’, offered a groundbreaking marriage of alt-rock, electronica and trip-hop – setting them apart from the prevailing murky grunge of the time (an even more impressive feat considering they count Butch Vig, the producer of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, as a drummer).
In 2001, when the airwaves were ruled by nu-metal and the rise of garage rock, they dropped the Blondie-sized ‘Beautiful Garbage’, with its arena-ready anthems, new wave and hip-hop beats. After the more stately rock of 2005’s ‘Bleed Like Me’ and 2012’s post-hiatus ‘Not Your Kind Of People’, 2016’s ‘Strange Little Birds’ marked a promising departure with a more menacing and cinematic approach.
On ‘No Gods No Masters’ the band have amped up the drama and ambition of its predecessor, carrying generations of influences with a future-marching stomp and a modern sheen, all delivered with a spirit and personality that can only be Garbage. The sonic ambition is necessary for the reckoning brought by Manson’s words.
After the sound of slot machines emptying, opener ‘The Men Who Rule The World’ bursts into an industrial cyber-punk reimagining of Noah’s Ark for 2021 where the patriarchy’s “history of power” and “the worship of success” has left us needing the save the kids and the animals, flood the planet and start over again. Album centrepiece ‘Waiting For God’, with lyrics that pre-date the murder of George Floyd, is a horror soundtrack set to our grim reality “where black boys get shot in the back” with “no one blinking an eye”.
Elsewhere, ‘Godhead’ is lifted straight from the Depeche Mode ‘Personal Jesus’ heavenly hard-glam playbook, but with a fearless warning against the patriarchy that’s pure Shirley Manson: “Would you deceive me if I had a dick?… Call me a bitch; I’m a terrorist”. The title track is a propulsive Human League-style rush of synths and bravado that sees her imagine a future of “running round and round in circles” and repetition of the same mistakes without a new form leadership and new way of thinking.
Manson’s not always on the soap-box, mind. There are personal battles here too. ‘Wolves’ is a devious little desert rock pop beast that sees her look back on the two sides of her persona in her youth, when she “got a little cruel – I was too brash for you” in the days when “we were drunk and we loved attention”. There are also still anthems for the misfits too, such the gothy ‘The Creeps’ (“I cannot let my feelings keep on hijacking my brain”) and ’Uncomfortably Me’, where she remembers a time when she “spent every day wishing my life away… Always the bridesmaid, never the bride / always the wallflower, never the sports star”.
The band have cited Roxy Music as an influence that runs throughout the record, and you can certainly hear that on the silky noir of ‘Uncomfortably Me’ and the glacial, classy ‘This City Will Kill You’ – which will certainly find a home in the hearts of fans of Garbage’s ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (which is just the best Bond theme, isn’t it?). The blazing sax and poolside swagger of ‘Anonymous (XXX)’ has the most obvious touch of Brian Ferry and co. (along with some Talking Heads post-punk-funk), while ‘Flipping The Bird’’s wandering basslines and sweet sounds ache with New Order’s knack for summery melancholy.
It all adds up to using elements of the past to paint a bleak and filmic picture of the present and our potential future. Seven album and nearly 30 years into their career, these veterans have pulled off a record that’s seductive in its sound and resonant in its message, as well as proving a triumph in showcasing not only the lineage that led to Garbage but also their mastery of alt-tinged dark-pop that led us the likes of Chvrches and Lana Del Rey – with even newbies Rina Sawayama and Olivia Rodrigo counting them as influences.
It’s no mean feat that ‘No Gods No Masters’ is not only Garbage’s best album in 20 years – at least – but one that could only have been made now.
Label: Infectious Music
Release date: June 11