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Garbage: No Gods No Masters

Garbage was a breath of fresh air when they broke onto the scene in 1995. Easy to dismiss as a side project for super producer Butch Vig, they took the industrial beats and post-grunge guitars from Curve but made them sharper and, thanks to the charisma of outspoken frontwoman Shirley Manson, more commercial. The tragedy is that having hit their stride from the start they never found the need to significantly develop their sound. No Gods No Masters is their seventh album – their first in half a decade – but it could just as easily have been released any time over the last 25 years.

The band have stated that it’s their most political album to date and follows themes of “capitalism, lust, loss and grief.” This isn’t an entirely new approach – with tracks on 2005’s Bleed Like Me addressing the US-led invasion of Iraq – but there is a directness to some of the material that leaves the listener in no doubt about the subject matter. Lead single “The Men Who Rule the World” addresses patriarchy and capitalism head on, opening with the sound of slot machines and an incessant riff that wouldn’t sound totally misplaced on St Vincent’s 2014 self-titled album. There’s genuine anger in Manson’s delivery when she seethes with dramatic over-simplification, “The fleecing of the people/ All the fucking time/ They call it self-preservation/ But we call it a crime.”

She returns more ambiguously to the subject of misogyny – or possibly just revenge by a spurned lover – on “A Woman Destroyed.” One of the album’s highlights, it veers away from their usual densely layered sound for a more ominous synth ambience as she sings, “Don’t walk home in the dark alone/ Better sleep with all the lights on.” It’s as intense as ever but the shift in mood offers welcome tonal relief. It’s the longest track on the album, at just over five minutes, but its inner dynamics make it feel much shorter than some of the others.

Elsewhere she turns her attention to the issue of race. “Waiting for God” returns to the spacious sound of “A Woman Destroyed” and, musically, is another standout. With an atypically dreamy delivery she ponders the “black boys [who] get shot in the back/ Were they caught riding their bike?/ Or guilty of walking alone?” This outward looking approach, with a willingness to minimally tweak their sound, sadly isn’t enough to counter the material that returns to their default electro-rock setting. They’re at their most intense and industrial on “Godhead,” whose pulsating synths are indebted to Violator era Depeche Mode, and the thunderous volley of “The Creeps.”

Yet overall the tone is lighter and more commercial than their last album, 2016’s Strange Little Birds. The guitar-driven “Wolves” returns to Manson’s obsession with gothic, tragic romances (“I was busy picking up the pieces of my broken heart”). The gentler “Uncomfortably Me” and Latin inspired “Anonymous XXX” also showcase their poppier side, although they lack the memorable hooks of their earlier material. The album ends with “This City Will Kill You,” the album’s one major misstep. A lumbering orchestral number that finds them pitching to record another James Bond theme tune, it finds them at an uncomfortable crossroads: to stretch themselves musically and risk failure or to stick with the status quo. The more adventurous tracks here suggest they should have the bravery to embrace change.

Garbage’s first album in half a decade is the result of a band who hit their stride too early to develop their sound — and because of it, it sounds like it could have just as easily been released any time over the last 25 years.
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