Album Review: Garbage’s Version 2.0 at 20

When you burst on the scene with a debut album that so clearly defines your sound, and that instantly puts you in the spotlight, it can be tough to put out a follow up on the same level, especially without majorly reinventing your sound. 20 years ago, Garbage became an exception to this trend.

Version 2.0, Garbage’s 1998 sophomore set — which gets an expanded reissue any day now — was a refinement, not a reinvention of the transatlantic band’s sonics, but it was also bigger and better in every way. Shirley Manson called it “the quintessential Garbage record” and it’s tough to disagree with her. It’s one of those albums that feels like it doubles as a greatest hits collection. Seven of its twelve songs were released as 45s in some form, and the five others all sound like they could have been. More Thriller than filler then. (How was Sleep Together never a single??)

Listening to the album two whole decades later, it doesn’t sound a day old. Granted, it’s got traits that were characteristic of the ‘90s alternative rock scene that Garbage came from, but Version 2.0 is kinda timeless, the sound of pure confidence, of a band operating at the peak of their abilities and finding ways to progress while holding onto what made people like them in the first place. Garbage was riding high off the success of their self-titled debut and they brought that energy into the studio to further the electronic-tinged blueprint of tunes like As Heaven Is Wide.

But this album is more than just locking down one sound. Many of these tracks move in unexpected directions. The songs are never content to simply hit a melody and stay there. Instead, the band opens a bag of tricks and throws in whatever they like. It’s the type of inspiration that you hope success brings, one where the rules are thrown away in favour of unabashed creativity.

You can hear the evolution of Garbage immediately. Whereas Supervixen opens the debut with a distorted blast of guitars, the equally enticing Temptation Waits starts Version 2.0 with a trip-hop beat and echoing chords. The song ebbs and flows, peaking with a blistering wah riff from Duke Erikson.

This digital DNA is painted all over the record, naturally sliding into the band’s intense performances. When I Grow Up, one of Garbage’s most immediate songs, slips in record scratches, slippery guitars and one hell of an earworm vocal to create a whole that is endlessly listenable. Hammering In My Head races forward with a Prodigy-style rave beat and a buzzsaw riff. The song keeps adding and subtracting layers, like warping Shirley Manson’s vocals, fading to needle guitars, then roaring back.

The dreamy Sleep Together subsumes shimmering synth lines into an industrial clang. You Look So Fine sounds like a lost Depeche Mode song with its icy piano, cinematic strings and synth-pop sheen. Manson sings beautifully about the death of a relationship, her vocals layered over each other as the track ends.

It’s not all electronic beats though that make these songs work. I Think I’m Paranoid fuses New Wave guitar notes with a roaring grunge chorus, as Manson’s vocal delivery ranges from detached to alluring to raging.

Wicked Ways is almost bluesy in its delivery, with slide guitar and speaking-shaking drums. Medication and The Trick Is To Keep Breathing show a invigorated ability to assemble powerful ballads that retain their grit and earthiness, even when the music starts to float into the Starman’s space oddity.

Indebted in no small part by Chrissie Hynde’s Brass In Pocket, Special takes the Pretenders classic and embellishes and blooms with a propulsive groove and guitar lines that can be pointed to as Exhibit A for why Garbage was given the job of performing the next James Bond theme in The World Is Not Enough.

Push It best combines these two sides of the record, melding electronic and organic elements the most out of any song here. It’s one of those tracks where you can find catchy melodies or rhythms in every instrument, but they all combine into something alluringly off-kilter.

It’s almost like looking at an image underwater, where the light is bent to make everything feel a little bit askew. Vocal harmonies push against grimy guitars, the build-up leads into a whispered chorus, the bridge drops into a sudden rush of strings, only for the band to come bursting back forward. It’s a masterfully constructed song filled with wonderful, unexpected moments.

While subsequent albums by Garbage would fall victim to trend-chasing and in-fighting, when the band returned after their hiatus, it was that melding of electronica and rock that they kept as their core, resulting in the underrated Not Your Kind Of People.

Version 2.0 defines the ideal sound of the band at their commercial peak, one where boldness holds the digital and organic together to fuse into something new. It’s the queerest of the queer.

Steve Pafford

Random Jukebox: Garbage say The World Is Not Enough is here

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