When “Only Happy When It Rains” appeared back in 1995, it was easy to take the song — with lines like “Pour your misery down on me” and “I’m riding high upon a deep depression” — as a knowing parody of alt-rock miserablism. Flash-forward 17 years, and Garbage has a five-album catalog steeped in self-loathing, emotional cynicism, and resignation. Saturday’s sold-out show at the Paradise was a reminder that poking fun at something doesn’t necessarily preclude also meaning it.
With her hair twisted into a tight, vertical copper horn, singer Shirley Manson seemed ready for battle. She immediately brought out her forceful sneer with the opening “Supervixen” and rarely let up — while she was in performance mode. Between songs, she exuded warmth and gratitude, but when she sang, she brandished the microphone like a fighter, balled her hands into fists and looked like she could bite at any moment. Her slow posing during “Queer” might have seemed louche if she were not so hooded and confrontational.
Manson’s snarl played off her band’s technologically-enhanced churn. “Bad Boyfriend” groaned with an echo-chamber guitar drone, while “Shut Your Mouth” rode a shuddering strut and “Why Do You Love Me” sped by on a fast buzz. Dialing back the heaviness would have revealed “Automatic Systematic Habit” as disco, while “Special” was simply Merseybeat given an electronic rush.
By that song’s end, Garbage had coalesced into a single, solid slab of noise, and Duke Erikson and Steve Marker’s guitars, while effective, occasionally lost some of the intricacies that colored such songs as “Push It” and “Metal Heart.” Not so with drummer Butch Vig; as befits the band’s superstar producer (having worked on breakthrough albums by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins), his drums were meticulously clear down to the minutest detail.
The combination was often plenty. “I Think I’m Paranoid” was sharp and tough, and “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” lifted effortlessly. Garbage might wallow in pessimism but, as the disdain-spitting of “Stupid Girl” made clear, the band found a way to turn it into empowerment.