In 1998, when Shirley Manson sang, “I think I’m paranoid and complicated,” she wasn’t kidding. She’s got a voice that feels like a nocturnal emission, her haughtiness could make Hell’s Angels pee their chaps, and she’s got it goin’ on like rowwwr. But she can’t see that last bit due to body dysmorphic disorder—a distressing condition whereby people obsess over some aspect of their physical appearance. There’s a likely connection between this strife and the merciless bullying Manson endured during her adolescence and her subsequent history with self-mutilation. The vicious resentment that has become the eau du Garbage is ripe on Bleed Like Me. In the first single, the uncomfortably frenetic “Why Do You Love Me,” she suggests, “I’m not as pretty as those girls in magazines. I am rotten to the core if they’re to be believed.”
Yet the flip side of Manson’s self-contempt is her infamous love of sex, evident in the opener “Bad Boyfriend.” The foreplay that defined Garbage’s early material has been substituted by aggressive, flashy guitars and rock drumming power-pounding the G-spot. So how can a woman who can’t stand herself be so at home body-banging? Sex for Shirley isn’t merely physical; in “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” fucking becomes a psychological playground where she disassociates from the ugly and boldly turns empowered minx. In April at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Manson was all body: hips and legs comfortable in a tight miniskirt that offered copious crotch shots. Go, baby, go, go.
But for a woman who loves pleasures of the flesh, Manson prays to be less human (read: less paranoid and complicated) in “Metal Heart.” By contrast, “Run Baby Run” and “Right Between the Eyes” urges ugly ducklings to bloom and flourish—on Bleed Like Me, it isn’t their poignant pain that sticks out, it’s Manson’s bravery in the face of it all. In a huge display of balls, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash was Garbage’s entry song at their show. It mirrored the confrontational title track about people dealing with anorexia, cutting, and gender crises. A glacial, angelic chorus of “you should see my scars” offers an exclusive invitation to these sacred hells. We’re asked, “Hey, baby, can you bleed like me?” but we obviously can’t. However distorted such perceptions of the self are, they are absolute realities nonetheless. As Manson’s fellow sexual provocateur Anaïs Nin explained: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”