Garbage couldn't have been a more coldly commercial concoction if evil boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman himself had been pulling the strings from deep within the swamplands of Florida. The strategy was simple: 1) Take three funny-looking, middle-aged, Midwestern studio rats, one of whom—Butch Vig—manned the boards for some of the biggest, most important albums of the past decade. 2) Allow them to live out their rock-star dreams providing monster hooks and mad production tricks for a pouty, charismatic Scottish frontwoman. 3) Sit back and wait for the platinum plaques to roll in. Even Shirley Manson's name, with its collision of peek-a-boo sexuality and goth menace, seems steeped in Garbage's trademark jaded irony.
Alas, adolescent irony doesn't tend to keep well, and by the first track of its fourth album, Bleed Like Me, Garbage already seems to have ridden it into a creative dead end. On "Bad Boyfriend," the Garbage boys whip up their signature mighty synthetic racket, but Manson's new-wave vocal mannerisms and tongue-in-cheek pining for a destructive relationship (which, like much of Garbage, seems vaguely "clever" without actually being clever) come off as a glib, not terribly compelling pose. When Manson tries to go deeper, as on the gloomy titular character study—with its self-conscious debt to "Walk On The Wild Side"—a strange, depressive, almost narcotic numbness gets in the way of anything approaching genuine human emotion. This is metal machine man music with big hooks that never quite imbed themselves into the subconscious. The problem with perfection is that ultimately so much of what makes us human involves imperfections. So perhaps it should not be terribly surprising that Garbage's latest approaches a kind of shimmering technical perfection, but remains strangely, stubbornly uninvolving.