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Whether as the whirling, twirling ringleader of 10,000 Maniacs or enjoying newfound freedom with her 1995 solo debut, Tigerlily, the beautifully aloof Natalie Merchant has always been a stimulus for hyperbolic reaction: You love her, you worship her, you label her the finest sexy-in-a-coy-way female voice since ’70s California girl Linda Ronstadt; or…you hate her, you despise her, you get nauseated every time she condemns meat-eaters, politicians, or television executives with her lush, lilting alto. She’s a vocal treasure; she’s a snobby bitch. For Merchant, there’s never been an in-between.

Whatever. For all her dandelion-crown pretension, Merchant’s crushed-velvet croon is a phenomenon; in fact—and some of you are no doubt retching this instant—there is no stronger, more captivating, more capable voice in pop music than hers. The fashion in which Merchant structures her songs, both lyrically and musically, is equally original, if blatantly arrogant: She is both singer and exotic instrument, and no matter how fast her drummer beats or guitarist plucks, Merchant soars, growls, coos—improvises—however she likes. She is the pale-faced star, the chubby diva, the One. She doesn’t care what you think; your opinion does not matter. Initially frustrating, yes; ultimately rewarding, definitely.

Ophelia, Merchant’s first album since the triple-platinum-selling (yet disappointingly erratic) Tigerlily, finds her even less concerned with hooks and catchy lyrics. Picking out a pure single on the new record, like Tigerlily’s “Carnival” or “Wonder,” is tough. (The saccharine “Kind and Generous,” a shuffling thank-you note, hit the airwaves first.) Because of its unorthodox composition and avoidance of familiar Top-40 avenues, Ophelia will undoubtedly be less popular commercially than its predecessor—even though artistically, it’s a far superior effort.

Merchant has dismantled most of Tigerlily’s standard rock-band backing and instead lined up more than 30 musicians, from Tibetan devotional singer Yungchen Lhamo to ethereal guitarist Daniel Lanois (who resists the urge to don his producer’s cap here and blends in creepily on the brooding “Thick as Thieves”). Although each of the 11 songs is performed by a fresh musical ensemble, a hushed, impressionistic focus remains throughout the album. Ophelia, years away from sharper-edged Maniacs fare like The Wishing Chair or even In My Tribe, has been crafted especially for the faint of heart.

With the exception of “Kind & Generous” and the string-swelled chorus of

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“Life Is Sweet,” Ophelia is downbeat, both rhythmically and emotionally. (The final track, “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” is an uplifting, hymnal duet with the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris, but it’s ultimately about journeying to “the sweet forever,” not exactly a place worth contemplating for a good time.) The bulk of the lyrics, always obtuse and often overwritten, deal with the mundane perils of Merchant’s favorite topic (besides herself, that is): everyday women, one of which she pretends to consider herself. The opening title track, consisting largely of a whispering Merchant and a soft keyboard, visits a cast of down-but-not-out feminine heroes: a female human cannonball, a nun, a Mafia moll, a silent-screen goddess. (Cindy Sherman-esque photos of the singer dressed up as these characters—taken by Rolling Stone’s Mark Seliger—accompany the liner notes; some are cute, some alluring, some cringeworthy.) “Break Your Heart” tells the story of a young woman who anticipates heartache and pulls herself away from a budding relationship; Merchant consoles the grieving with the help of an optimistic jazz trumpet, Zairian Lokua Kanza’s acoustic guitar, and sweet backing vocals courtesy of the Brand New Heavies’ N’dea Davenport.

Before Merchant gets near-suicidal with the dirgelike “Effigy” and “The Living”—her bleakest statements to date, even more so than the Maniacs’ “Dust Bowl” and “Eat for Two”—she manages to create a brilliant portrait of strangled hope in “King of May,” a “These Are Days” on downers. Merchant begins the song in much the same way as “Ophelia”—sparse, contemplative, fatalistic—but soon decides to try to smile beneath the sorrow. By the song’s finale, the singer is what-the-hell wailing above an overpowering orchestra, and the effect is breathtaking. “King of May,” with its you-and-me heroes and poppy-field sentiment, is the reason we love Natalie Merchant…and the reason the rest of you hate her.

OK, enough of that sentimental crap: It’s time to get down and dirty. It’s time to get rowdy. It’s time for Shirley Manson, another female pop star who’s happiest when it rains, but who’s more likely to get nasty in the downpour than scribble poetry.

Producer-drummer Butch Vig may be the chief reason for Garbage’s infectious pop sound, but frontwoman Manson is the sole reason for the band’s megaselling success. When we first met Manson, back in 1995 on Garbage’s self-titled debut, the smeared-lipstick redhead purred her introduction with unforgettable bluntness: “Come down to my house/And stick a stone in your mouth/You can always pull out/If you like it too much.” The song was “Supervixen,” track No. 1, and the stop-and-start blare was like a fire alarm going off inside your skull. After songs like “Queer” and “Stupid Girl” rose to the summit of the pop heap, Manson put the cherry on top of her seduction by informing her public that while she enjoys wearing mini-skirts on stage, she just can’t bring herself to wear underpants, too. That sealed the deal: Most of us, men and women, would have robbed the nearest bank if she had asked. From the moment we heard her, Shirley Manson had us by the proverbial cojones.

Garbage’s sophomore effort, Version 2.0 finds the Scottish Manson in roughly the same mood—horny, angry, vindictive, condescending—yet Vig has managed to make her attraction even more dizzying by layering the album with relentless techno thumps, industrial clanks, hiphop scratches, and some well-placed, well-known samples that tickle the subconscious. Version 2.0 makes Garbage sound like an acoustic album, and its slick, synthetic packaging works, thanks to the woman in charge. Just when you’re ready to sniff at the smoke and mirrors behind the songs’ overproduced frames, Manson grabs you by the collar and demands your attention: Sure, it’s cotton candy, sweetheart, but doesn’t it taste so good?

The first single, “Push It”—complete with not-so-subtle allusions to the Salt-n-Pepa sex-bomb of the same name and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”—is perfect mood music for the back seat of dad’s Volvo. “I Think I’m Paranoid,” a strong candidate for the second single, blends crunching guitars and bloated beats with Manson’s angry plea for sexual peace of mind. The album’s high point, “Special,” is Manson’s ode to Chrissie Hynde (even though the chief Pretender was reportedly none too pleased about the use of “Talk of the Town” lyrics); the beat is breakneck and hard, but Manson chooses to smear dreamy la-la-las over the frenzy. Even Garbage’s first official ballad, “The Trick Is to Keep Breathing,” aimed at the particularly lousy parts of youth—and remembering them well into middle-age—is set to a slinky panther crawl, with Manson sighing regret into your ear (though you’re almost positive it’s a come-on).

Whenever Manson shows even the slightest weakness, however, her brashness returns in the very next song. “Keep Breathing” is followed by “Dumb,” about Manson hopping into the sack with all the wrong partners, which is followed by “Sleep Together,” which is about, well, I’ll let you use your imagination. Isn’t that the whole point of Garbage, anyway? CP