The prospect of Shirley Manson singing “This Little Light of Mine” certainly has wicked potential. The Garbage frontwoman folds that child’s hymn into the final minutes of “Beloved Freak,” the last song on Not Your Kind of People, the band’s fifth album and first in seven years. Rising out of post-Lilith Fair ‘90s alt-rock, the Scottish singer/songwriter brought an outlandish sensibility to that decade’s girl power movement, building on the edgier breakthroughs on Liz Phair and PJ Harvey. Manson sang about sex and power like she was the woman who inspired every Nine Inch Nails song, except instead of tormented, she sounded like she was having a blast tormenting whoever the “you” was in her songs. And the band of producers—Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker—churned out a kind of bubblegum industrial that may have predicted the supercompressed radio hits of the 2000s, but they also bolstered Manson’s power plays without sacrificing her personality, her femininity, or her pop perversions. She was, in short, one of the most complex and compelling rock stars of the 1990s.
So Manson, who famously included a reference to golden showers in Garbage’s biggest hit, ought to make “This Little Light of Mine” sound deliciously twisted or at least newly subversive, a poke in the eye to all the pieties the song represents. But she played “Beloved Freak” perfectly straight, fashioning an anthem of be-yourself individuality with all the good intentions, but none of the fab flashiness, of a Lady Gaga deep-album cut. In this context, “Light” is a headslapper, so solemn and earnest and obvious that it plays like a punchline that Manson herself isn’t in on. Which is odd because Manson usually presents herself as a commanding and controlling presence.
“Beloved Freak” is a sad end to an album that strives to be topical, to be relevant—to really, truly mean something in 2012. It may be among the most desperate comebacks in recent memory, and therefore one of the least successful: Everything from the stilted production to Manson’s lyrics to that awful album cover seems hopelessly mired in 1998. What sounded “ahead of its time” circa Version 2.0, their best and most long-lived album, sounds about as timely as an AOL Installer CD circa version 5.0.
Manson can still write a disarming hook, and she can almost sell a line like “It’s a bloody war… of attrition.” She still inhabits her songs bravely and brazenly, which elevates otherwise lackluster material like “Blood for Poppies” and “Man on a Wire.” But that gaze-commanding presence used to be an extension of the songs themselves and not a means of compensation. But even during the album’s high points, her melodies are usually obstructed, not reinforced by the busybody production, which is garish and distracting without contributing a memorable riff or groove.
But more than their tired beats and OCD production, what really sinks Not Your Kind of People is the sad fact that in 2012, Garbage have relinquished their role as provocateurs. Rather than upend expectations of female-driven rock or smuggle darker realities/fantasies onto the radio (or whatever is the present-day equivalent), the band is content to nod toward ideas of nonconformity and individualism without enacting them lyrically or musically.