Just as the reception of Beck’s Midnite Vultures was influenced by the critical success of Odelay, Garbage’s beautifulgarbage will be shrouded in the bias of its predecessors. beautiful, the comparatively poppy follow-up to 1998’s Grammy-nominated Version 2.0, is no Version 3.0, yet it will undoubtedly win accolades based on the band’s previous efforts. Good or bad, relevant here or not, the influence of expectation is a product of modern criticism in a time of multimedia pop art. And Garbage is the quintessential pop art outfit, consistently blending rock and electronica in a fusion that is, ultimately and undeniably, just plain pop.
For the most part, beautiful succeeds in its attempt at beauty, dressing up the band’s signature rock riffs with sugary melodies and a patently retro pop sensibility that recalls Like a Virgin-era Madonna. In 1984, Madonna shed her initial black-rooted club music for a more mainstream pop sound that, though deemed a defining artifact of ‘80s pop, was just as influenced as it was influential. Similarly, tracks like Garbage’s “Can’t Cry These Tears” and “Breaking Up the Girl” draw on more traditional pop forms; the former is even structured like an old ‘50s tune.
Frontwoman Shirley Manson chirps out a Britneyfied performance on the New Wave-metabolized “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!),” but it’s far edgier than anything our current pop princess could ever sing (it tells the story of a sassy, trend-setting transvestite). Manson displays more vocal versatility than ever before, exuding a subdued, gentler side on the acoustic-based “Drive You Home” and “So Like a Rose”: “Sleeping with ghosts/It’s such a warming experience.” The meter-shifting “Silence Is Golden” finds the vixen wailing as if she’s been forsaken by everything and everyone she holds dear (“Something was stolen/I have been broken!”) and subsequently sums up her despondency amid spooky trilling and splices of cinematic dementia on the standout “Cup of Coffee” (“I give myself to anyone who wants to take me home”).
With tracks like “Shut Your Mouth” and the existential “Parade,” the band sticks to more typical Garbage fare, mixing up turntable scratches, clangy guitars and super-tight drum programming. The album’s first single, “Androgyny,” is a seemingly disposable, albeit infectious, rewrite of “Queer”; its exhortation that liberation can be found in abandoning sexual boundaries doesn’t seem very groundbreaking in 2001. Yet beautiful isn’t so much about breaking ground as it is about coming down to it. Make no mistake though: Garbage makes music just above pop’s sea level and it’s beautiful indeed.