Angry rocker chicks have enjoyed an uneasy reputation lately — for every Avril Lavigne setting trends (badly) and smashing guitars (or pretending to), there’s a Courtney Love just scaring everyone’s pants off. Even Garbage’s Shirley Manson, the grandmother of ’90s angry rocker chicks, hasn’t remained the cultural bellwether she once was, veering from the man-eating Medusa of 1998’s often sublime “Version 2.0” to the post-Britney pop-tart of 2001’s horrific “Beautifulgarbage.” On Garbage’s first album since then, “Bleed Like Me,” Manson returns to her rage-a-holic roots, and while the results seem a bit dated, they’re decent enough to rescue Garbage from the has-been status that’s driven them into the used-CD bin.
The main problem with “Bleed Like Me” is that it can’t decide which of Garbage’s early releases it’s trying to emulate. While their 1995 self-titled debut was a taut, cohesive work, and “2.0” was a collection of brilliant rock-radio singles, “Bleed Like Me” is a bit too monotone for the latter and a bit too poppy for the former. At least poppy wins out over monotone — catchy radio sing-a-longs like “Run Baby Run” and the title track trump the flat, derivative sound of “Sex Is Not the Enemy” and “Right Between the Eyes.”
Maybe my middle school-inspired expectations were too high — as though this album could resurrect the bygone idea of a rock-and-roll smash. But while Garbage certainly has a vast arsenal of both stadium-rock and MTV-pop weaponry at their disposal, they can’t quite bring out the angry teen in all of us like they used to.
Take “Run Baby Run,” the closest the album gets to a “When I Grow Up” anthem. It gallops along with the same whip-crack energy, layering heavy and buzzing guitars that somehow all align for the catchy chorus. Manson’s cosmic cries and epic yelps of “Go on!” might be causing a supernova in some distant galaxy, if only the lyrical content weren’t so tame. We all know the band can write some great rock verses, so it’s hard to excuse a weak tirade like “Life can be so cruel/ Don’t it astound you?”
Maybe marriage and success have finally smoldered Manson’s fire. On “Happy Home” she coos about birds singing and her lover’s embrace over a gentle acoustic guitar. A flourishing violin arrangement closes out the six-minute number — the closest Garbage has ever come to balladry, and the closest Manson will probably ever come to smiling. It’s certainly nice to know she isn’t constantly on the edge of mania, and her tone is serious enough that we don’t simply write off her warped version of happiness. Yet “Happy Home” veers so far from her usual balls-out bloodletting sagas that you can’t help but wonder if puppies and daisies are next.
Thankfully, “Bleed Like Me” lives up to its name, especially on the fantastic title track. Once again we start out with mournful violins and a contemplative acoustic guitar. The song is composed of five twisted-youth vignettes, from an anorexic Jesus freak to a self-mutilator. Manson’s sadistically cheerful voice acts as both narrator and participant, reverberating against itself during the ominous chorus.
Musically, the track is surprisingly complex (especially considering the band’s last effort). Butch Vig’s famous production emphasizes every gasp and click of Manson’s tongue, while gradually building a massive panoply of scathing guitars and spooky synthesizers. The band even tosses in a desolate, eerie trumpet during one of the song’s lulls, achieving a wonderfully disconcerting effect. Though it’s a busy, weighty number, it manages to hang together quite well, recalling the slick sonic experimentation of “Vow” and Garbage’s other early hits.
Garbage has always been able to rock out and make it look easy, and on songs like “Bleed Like Me,” they hit the mark straight on. But when they stumble, they stumble hard. On “Right Between the Eyes” — with its annoyingly frantic guitars and screeching, upper-register singing — the band tries so hard to be the stand-out of “Bleed Like Me” that it overshoots entirely. Maybe it’s true that the musical sea change of the ’00s hasn’t left much room for angry rocker chicks and their now un-hip bands. But as long as Manson and Co. don’t spend too much time longing for the days of alt-rock yore, they’ll keep on raging into the 21st century.