At the onset of what became the tangled COVID era, practically everyone found themselves wrestling with serious existential questions. But Garbage singer Shirley Manson, at a wisdom-seeking 54, wound up grappling with a lot more than most. Figuratively, she began questioning either herself and society in general – as demonstrated on her band’s probing new No Gods No Masters treatise, their seventh overall — and in reality, through the cavalcade of music celebrities she’s been interviewing on The Jump, her new podcast, now in its second 12-episode season.
And she’s learned a lot about herself in the process.
Just pinning her peers down on the one crucial song that changed their careers, she says, has given her “a whole new appreciation of journalism, of music journalism, and just people who listen for a living,” she tells SPIN. “It’s just been life-changing, you know?”
The singer’s quizzical period began with “No Horses,” a standalone single that her band released to coincide with the 2017 publication of its coffee table book, This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake. The metaphorical question came to her while driving through the countryside of her native Scotland, and seeing pastures full of idle workhorses; “What happens to noble animals that are no longer useful to humans?” she wondered. Extinction, like so many hundreds of other earlier species that got in the way of progress? That initial rumination has grown to monumental proportions on No Gods, which expands on Manson’s longtime sneaking suspicion that humanity has selfishly, stupidly doomed itself to extinction, as well.
The first issues the album tackles are Trump-era misogyny and a political desire to win at any cost. In the opening “The Men Who Rule the World,” a clattering synth-guitar mashup from bandmates Butch Vig, Steve Marker, and Duke Erikson that Manson makes even darker with hissed lyrics both explicit (“The men who rule the world have made a fucking mess/ The history of power, the worship of success”) and obliquely vague (the repeated blaming of a nameless ‘Violator’). Who or what is this said ominous presence?
“The violator is anyone who is doing harm, harm to the environment, to other people’s bodies, to animals,” she growls.
Why would any woman vote for a candidate who boasts about grabbing them by their private parts? Manson thinks she has an answer. It’s partly brainwashing, she says, perhaps from a right-wing partner or family member, or it’s rooted in party-pampered politicians afraid to rock the financial boat.
“So they’ll take the devil they know over the devil they don’t — people vote against their own self-interest all the time,” she says.
And don’t get her wrong, the vocalist continues. The song isn’t simply suggesting that the Earth would be better off with more females in power, like New Zealand’s brilliant and compassionate Jacinda Ardern.
“It’s not just more women — we want ALL the marginalized peoples on board, because they’re all offering different perspectives, and whenever you have different perspectives, you have different solutions,” she says, authoritatively. “And Lord knows, we need some new ideas. Let’s get more black people in there, more brown people, more indigenous, trans, and non-binary people. Let’s get everyone on board, trying to fix the holes in the ship, you know?” Growing frustrated with the patriarchy isn’t necessarily anti-male, she stresses. “it’s just loosening the grip of one old-man perspective. It’s time to change. It’s time for new growth, new ideas.”
Manson was already in a thoughtful, soul-searching mood prior to the lockdown, when Garbage’s eponymous, double platinum 1995 debut was turning a how-fast-time-passes 25. The band’s success story was an unlikely one — in his secluded hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, veteran Nirvana producer (and drummer) Vig had formed a mixing/production team with guitarist/keyboardist Marker and bassist/keyboardist Erikson, with himself handling mic details at first. But the trio, after deciding that the act needed a classy but tough feminine edge, stumbled upon the then-Angelfish-fronting Manson on MTV’s 120 Minutes and knew they’d found their girl. Tentatively, she flew to Wisconsin to work on song ideas, with just an EP or 12-inch single in mind. But there was an album’s worth of undeniable chemistry in those sessions, and it’s bonded the members like family ever since.
With eerie, prophetic timing, No Gods provided Manson with a larger inner-dialogue forum. And it’s bleak but illuminating, from the charging ‘80s synth rocker “The Creeps” to the lumbering “Waiting For God,” a menacing bark-sung “Godhead,” the haunting “A Woman Destroyed,” and an ultimate pushed-too-far declaration called “Flipping the Bird,” in which Manson observes that “You tell me who you think I am” but counters it with a defiant “I stopped listening to you years ago.”
She believes these speculative recordings — which were finished March 15, 2020, just before the universal lockdown —occurred at a perfect time.
“Because this album was written before all the shit really hit the fan,” she notes. “So I definitely feel like it was brought to me to deliver.” And the main thematic question beneath its surface? “Is there anyone left with any integrity? Anyone at all? I ask myself that on an almost daily basis,” she says, despairingly.
Climate change has gotten urgent, direly so, Manson admits. But she’s not betting on our extinction just yet.
“However, I definitely think that if America doesn’t pull up its socks, then it’s going to be a little like the fall of Rome,” she reckons. “You’ve got this phenomenal country that seems to be slipping slowly down the tubes, especially with its educational system. But that’s what happens when you obsess about the profit margin and forget what’s more important. Like at a time, for example, when you need brainpower to come up with a vaccine for a virus that is killing people in the thousands, all over the globe. If ever we learned a lesson, it should be now — all the money in the world’s not gonna help you if you don’t have a medical and scientific approach to the problem.”
So from her home base in Los Angeles, Manson plans to continue asking questions, Especially on “The Jump.” “What an extraordinary piece of luck to be offered that job,” she enthuses. “It’s been one of the most extraordinary privileges of my life, to sit down for two hours with someone like George Clinton. And I love the idea of being a servant. Even as a singer in a band, we are in service to other people, and I think that’s a glorious way to look at it.”