I had high hopes when Garbage officially announced their new album, No Gods No Masters, in March this year. After teasing the project for a few years, and suggesting that it would be “cinematic” and “poppier” than usual, I could tell that album #7 would be a special one. The three singles did not disappoint, and now with the full album available everywhere, I can gladly say that this album truly is as amazing as I’d hoped it would be.
My love of Garbage goes back nearly 20 years. They were the first band I got into after deciding to forge my own musical identity and leave behind the country music on which my parents had raised me. I’ll never forget the magic of those first three albums: Garbage, Version 2.0, and Beautiful Garbage. As the band released three subsequent albums, a hits compilation, and rereleases of the first two records, their unique style always held strong. But with No Gods No Masters, Garbage somehow feels even more inspired, energized, and playful than they have in a long time.
No Gods No Masters is at once comfortingly familiar and boldly surprising. Many of the songs harken back to the sound of their earlier albums – especially Garbage and Beautiful Garbage. Indeed, drummer Butch Vig himself has called this album the “mutant cousin” of Beautiful Garbage. (Great timing, since the 20th anniversary re-release of Beautiful Garbage is due out later this year!) No Gods No Masters is similarly diverse and sonically pleasant, but it’s also similarly aggressive and provocative. Remember how in-your-face and thought-provoking songs like “Shut Your Mouth” and “Androgyny” were back in 2001? Here, those lyrical themes can be found in “The Men Who Rule The World,” “Godhead,” and “Anonymous XXX.” Even the ballads here cut deeper: “Waiting For God” is heartbreaking, yet also direct in discussing a critical issue facing us today. Other songs feel warmly nostalgic, like “Wolves,” “Flipping The Bird,” and the title track.
As much as No Gods No Masters captures the inimitable essence fans love so much in Garbage, it also pushes the band into new territory. Many of the songs sound more industrial and post-punk than ever before, hitting hard the way their 2005 album Bleed Like Me did (and still does). The guitars are prominent and the beats are stomping. Frontwoman Shirley Manson sings with ferocity in some songs, but also with playful taunting, over-the-top sweetness, and ragged devastation. Her low register is strong as always, but she also uses higher notes more than ever before, adding a new, haunting yet angelic dimension to the vocals on this record.
Although Shirley said in 2019 that this wouldn’t be a political record, many of the songs here are quite political by my estimation. Not that anything comes across as preachy. She doesn’t point fingers or declare specific solutions to issues. But the songs do identify – with precision and rage – many of the problems present in our world today. Flawed world leaders, financial ruin, gun violence, and gender inequality all face examination here, and the verdict is generally (and rightfully) negative.
Religion also comes up frequently here, even making it into three song titles (“Waiting For God,” “Godhead,” and “No Gods No Masters”). Garbage has discussed religion since their very first albums; see, for example, “As Heaven Is Wide.” Shirley was raised in a Christian household, though in her adult life she has been critical of organized religion. As ever, she does not attack religion here, but she does question how helpful faith and prayers are in solving the tragedies plaguing us. Where is a god who does not use his power to prevent such suffering?
Following a seven-year hiatus, Garbage found new independent freedom in their own Stunvolume record label. The past decade has produced two albums prior to this one: Not Your Kind Of People in 2012 and Strange Little Birds four years later. Both sounded more mature and established, the former being a balanced mix of Garbage’s essential qualities and the latter being a brooding turn towards drama and darkness. No Gods No Masters has the confident eclecticism of Not Your Kind Of People, and just a hint of the moroseness of Strange Little Birds. More than those two predecessors, though, this album feels reinvigorated and daring, renewing Garbage’s importance for a new decade.
No Gods No Masters is a bold and exciting masterpiece that stands among the best of Garbage’s decades-long musical output. It has immediacy and replay value and, I suspect, that mysterious, special ingredient that turns an album into a beloved, life-long staple.
Track by Track
“The Men Who Rule The World” – No Gods No Masters opens with a bold track, one that may not click immediately, but which does grow stronger with each listen. The sounds of slot machines usher us in before the stomping energy kicks in. From the beginning, “The Men Who Rule The World” sounds industrial and post-punk. Its dark atmosphere perfectly matches Shirley Manson’s lyrics about our world leaders making a mess of everything. The whole song is explicitly political in a way we haven’t really heard from Garbage before, and it’s a welcome new theme for the band, one they continue to explore throughout the album. “The Men Who Rule The World” offers several hooks, too, from the eerie “money money money” pre-chorus to the “hate the violator, destroy the violator” post-chorus. But the main chorus, in which Shirley sings “Stuck inside my head,” is perhaps the most telling: These political and social woes are inescapable and endlessly haunt us.
“The Creeps” – Like the previous track, the second song is another that’s not immediate. It doesn’t click right away, but it, too, gets better with each successive listen. “The Creeps” has a rapid pace and a frantic energy. Shirley sings with an expressive yet fed-up cadence, somewhat recalling the bridge of “Man On A Wire,” one of the standouts on Garbage’s 2012 album, Not Your Kind Of People. However, “The Creeps” isn’t quite as manic vocally, despite the frenzied music. The chorus is filled with layers – instruments and vocals alike – inundating the ears and submerging the listener entirely. While “The Creeps” will likely appeal to many fans, and I do like it myself, I find it to be the weakest song here.
“Uncomfortably Me” – For everyone who has ever felt out of place, lonely, weird, misunderstood – this is your anthem. Teenagers will relate, but the feelings can and do persist into adulthood. “Uncomfortably Me” is a melancholy and reflective song, built on a weary beat with powerful instrumentation. Shirley sings about how she feels uncomfortable nearly everywhere, surrounded by people who aren’t like her or don’t get her. There’s something familiar about how the song sounds, ironically comforting despite the title. The song ends on a low, buzzing bass.
“Wolves” – By now, it’s time for a new infusion of energy, and “Wolves” fully delivers. At once, “Wolves” sounds like old-school Garbage circa 1995 (and even Angelfish, Shirley’s prior band that released its only album in 1994). After an intro of chiming chords, blasting drums, and a crescendoing electronic blip, Shirley sings low over bass and drums, describing how cruel she became when recovering from a broken heart. As she explained in a statement last month, “Wolves” is about inner conflict, regret, and duality. Indeed, as she asks in the second verse (itself inspired by cultural folklore), who will she be: the good wolf or the bad wolf? The chorus is sugary yet taunting: “No one can say / That I didn’t need you / That I didn’t want you / That I didn’t love you.” It’s a poppy yet dark song, aided by subtle howls serving as backing vocals. “Wolves” is among the strongest and most infectious songs on the album, and a blissful highlight.
“Waiting For God” – The most heartbreaking song on the album is “Waiting For God,” and the music matches the lyrics perfectly. The music is slow and somber, Shirley’s voice low and strained as if she’s been crying. She sings about a mother who has lost her son to gun violence, but there is no hope for justice. Was he a black man who was murdered out of racism? Was he a child trapped in a school classroom during a shooting? While we avoid changing laws to fix these problems, we rely on faith in a higher being to save us. But where is God during all of this? “Waiting For God” sounds like a desperate plea coming from a place of deep despair. It’s a powerful ballad that’s all too relevant to the times we’re in.
“Godhead” – God appears again here, but it’s an entirely different mood and energy. “Godhead” tip-toes in before quickly launching into music that is industrial and aggressive. But then it gets even more surprising as Shirley starts the first verse, fiercely whispering some taunting questions. It’s instantly provocative and even menacing, her rage over gender inequality barely contained. Contrasting with those sinister verses, the chorus is freeing, Shirley singing more sweetly. The chorus ends with stabbing power. If you thought that first verse was shocking, wait until you hear the second! In addition to human anatomy, she adds terrorism to the mix. “Godhead” is the most intense song on No Gods No Masters, a thrilling highlight, and a song that already seems to have captured most fans’ love.
“Anonymous XXX” – The surprises continue on “Anonymous XXX,” the focus now shifting from anatomy to sex. It opens with some gentle, heavenly keys and then a quick strum of an acoustic guitar and some suggestive vocalizations from Shirley. Horns come into the mix and the energy builds up to something celebratory and escapist. On the first verse, Shirley equates pain with love, setting up a character who is troubled but has found a comforting fixation. The chorus is actually rather resigned, but then the post-chorus arrives with a hypnotic, free-falling, chiming soundscape full of empty promises. Congas add to the fun before the song moves onto the next verse. “Anonymous XXX” is another shocking and experimental song, and another standout on the album.
“A Woman Destroyed” – We’ve heard a variety of moods on the album already, but we haven’t yet had much drama. Luckily, “A Woman Destroyed” changes that. The song opens with ominous throbs, screeching strings, and unsettling knocking, setting us up for what could be a great horror movie scene. Instead of ghosts, though, the killer here may be a woman scorned. Shirley describes a man who has thrown away their love, and it’s a mistake he will soon regret. She’s restrained now, but the strings in the background keep the tension high. So do her threatening lyrics: Her ex better lock his door and get a guard dog, because he’s not safe anymore. The chorus takes a new surprising turn, becoming menacingly circus-like with Shirley’s taunting “la-love” and a pulsing keyboard. After the second chorus, the song moves into a new breakdown, adding church bells and a growling guitar. This song is cinematic and terrifying, and I love it.
“Flipping The Bird” – Easing the mood a bit, “Flipping The Bird” is among the most familiar-sounding songs here. It could easily have fit in on Garbage’s debut album 26 years ago. The song may sound pretty and sweet, but don’t be fooled: Shirley is definitely annoyed. She describes someone she privately hates. Around him, she may act agreeable and nice, but behind his back, she’s angrily flipping him off. This is another song we can probably all relate to, so it will make a great anthem for all of us who are disgruntled but outwardly polite. “Flipping The Bird” is energetic and infectious.
“No Gods No Masters” – Despite its rather metal single cover art (it was the album’s second single, first released in late April), “No Gods No Masters” exudes a warm poppiness, much like “Flipping The Bird” before it. It’s melodic and truly fun to listen to, but that belies the lyrical message. The lyrics are as political as many of the other tracks here, especially on the second verse. Shirley is direct: “Save your prayers for yourself / ’Cause they don’t work and they don’t help.” Indeed, we can’t pray away the constant shootings and gun violence in the United States. Even with weighty topics, the song still feels buoyant and cool, and is one of the more immediate and accessible tunes here.
“This City Will Kill You” – Garbage always ends their albums with a great ballad, and No Gods No Masters upholds that tradition. Horns, jazzy piano, and gentle drums open “This City Will Kill You,” setting up a song that is cinematic and classy, but also moody. Shirley paints a scene of a busy city that is a bad influence on her. She sounds lost and like she’s on a bad path, and the only way to survive is to escape the city’s clutches. Halfway through, as Shirley sings in her upper register, the delivery actually recalls Lana Del Rey in its vulnerability and gentleness. As it ends, Shirley sounds frantic and breathy, making a similar impression to that in “Miner’s Canary” by Vanessa Carlton. The horns close out the song with that breathy panic. “This City Will Kill You” is a melancholy, stunning song and a beautiful close to the album.
No Gods No Masters Score: 5/5
Highlights on No Gods No Masters include: “Wolves,” “Waiting For God,” “Godhead,” “Anonymous XXX,” “A Woman Destroyed,” and “This City Will Kill You.”