by Michael Goldberg
Monday October 29, 2001
Garbage Dissect Our Modern Age
Tapping into the melancholy of Haruki Murakami's existential anti-heroes
In recent weeks, the writing of the brilliant Japanese author Haruki Murakami and the latest music from Garbage have intersected in my world. For Murakami, things aren't what they seem. A seemingly solid relationship is actually about to combust; an old dry well is a passageway to a world of the psyche; our souls can meet, on occasion, when we dream. For Garbage, pop, rock and electronic sounds, sounds that can seem to simply rock or make us dance, are paired with dark, disturbing lyrics that at times portray hopelessness.
While dropping by the New York offices of my friend's management company earlier this year, I got to hear a few tracks off Garbage's latest album, their third, beautifulgarbage. Before playing "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)," I was told (warned?) that this album's sound was a bit different from that of Garbage's previous releases. This was a more mainstream album, I was led to believe; Garbage were leaving behind the "Modern Rock" world they grew up in and heading... where? The middle of the road?
Listening in the office that day to "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)" and the ballad "Cup of Coffee," I worried that the album was going to be a big disappointment. After all, it was the offbeat pop sounds producer/musician Butch Vig and his musical collaborators Duke Erickson and Steve Marker created that set up Shirley Manson's lyrics and vocals. Tone down the sound of Garbage, and what would you have? Could Manson maintain the edge?
But I was wrong. If anything, beautifulgarbage is more intense than the group's previous albums (the music may be more subtle, but it's just as unconventional). Manson's writing touches on subjects as diverse as her own pop life, sexual confusion, romance (and the end of love) and "the bubbles that brainwash the masses."
Only Happy When It Rains
I have been quite taken I don't want to say obsessed, 'cause that's too strong a word by the music of Garbage since I first heard an advance of their debut in the summer of 1995. Garbage blew me away, and I immediately dispatched Gil Kaufman, then an Addicted To Noise contributing editor living in Chicago, to Madison, Wis., where he spent a day with the group at Smart Studios (where Vig had produced some of Nirvana's Nevermind).
Kaufman's reporting resulted in the first in-depth feature on Garbage published in the U. S. ( "Garbage Rise From the House That Grunge Built").
That album, as you likely know, was a substantial hit. It was followed by the even more adventurous Version 2.0, which found Vig and company creating more experimental soundscapes for Manson's increasingly confident lyrics.
beautifulgarbage, it turns out, is no disappointment. Having now listened to it 40 or so times over the past month (in the car, in my writing studio, blasting from speakers and through headphones), I can tell you that I love it. Some of my favorite songs are the most seemingly conventional, including the ballads "Cup of Coffee" and "Drive You Home."
The Sound Of Melancholy
I've began really listening to beautifulgarbage while reading Murakami's fiction. He's "Japan's most popular living fiction writer," according to a recent piece in the New York Times, but I was unaware of him until Neumu columnist Philip Sherburne mentioned his work in an email last month.
I spent the last three weeks reading Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird," which I hesitate to recommend to anyone because it includes some truly harrowing descriptions of things that you may not want in your brain (I wish they weren't in mine). That said, the book is an amazing, multi-leveled work that deals with self-examination and our relationships with those we love as it follows the disintegration and resuscitation of existentialist anti-hero Toru Okada's life.
Among Murakami's many talents as a writer is his ability to convey the sadness and pain of losing the love of one's life. Both in "The Wind-Up Bird" and "Norwegian Wood," the novel I'm just beginning, Murakami's words make me feel the melancholy, the same feeling that Garbage summon up with "Cup of Coffee." "You tell me you don't love me over a cup of coffee," Manson sings over a sad descending organ melody. "And I just have to look away/ A million miles between us/ Planets crashing to dust/ I just let it fade away."
This is powerful poetry, the way that most commonplace daily event of having a cup of coffee is the scene of the cataclysmic. The way, in a few lines, the emotional distance ("a million miles between us") and the magnitude of what he is saying to her ("planets crashing to dust") are conveyed.
Manson sings the lyrics as if in a daze, as if still in shock from hearing that it's over. She seems to summon up all her emotional strength to deliver the chorus: "So no of course we can't be friends/ Not while I'm still this obsessed/ I guess I always knew the score/ This is where our story ends." And then the sad strings come in, underlining that last line.
You Must Be Careful
Elsewhere on the album ("Shut Your Mouth") Manson comments on the business she's in: "Give 'em what they want/ What they want to see and you could be a big star/ You could go far/ Make a landmark/ Make a shit load." She sings that last line (which she repeats over and over) as if there was nothing quite so vulgar.
In "The Wind-Up Bird" a thug tells Okada, "You can't keep it up forever, though. You're going to burn out sooner or later. Everybody does. It's the way people are made. ... Everybody burns out in this world: amateur, pro, it doesn't matter, they all burn out, they all get hurt, the OK guys and the not-OK guys both. ... Maybe I shouldn't say this to you, Mr. Okada, but you're ready to go down. It's a sure thing. It says so in my book, in big, black letters about two or three pages ahead: 'TORU OKADA READY TO FALL'. It's true.... "
In "Breaking Up the Girl," Manson sings: "In a modern culture/ My friend you must be careful/ They've a million ways to kill you/ In this dangerous world."