"Only Happy When it Rains" was released as the third single from the campaign for Garbage in both the United Kingdom (in September 1995) and North America (in February 1996), being issued in three formats vinyl, CD maxi, and cassette. The song received positive reviews, praising the production and Shirley Manson's singing, and became the band's breakthrough single, charting strongly on both the UK Singles Chart and Billboard Hot 100. It also crossed over to pop radio formats, propelling their debut album into the Top 100 of the Billboard 200 for the first time, and the song's music video, directed by Samuel Bayer, received much airplay on MTV. "Only Happy When it Rains" has gone on to be an enduring work for the group, being featured in the video game Guitar Hero 5 and receiving covers by Richard Cheese, Katerina Graham and Metallica.
"Only Happy When It Rains" was written and recorded between March 1994 and May 1995, with the composition happening in sessions between band members Duke Erikson, Shirley Manson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig in Marker's basement recording studio, and the recording itself being done at their own Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. Bass on "Only Happy When It Rains" was played by Mike Kashou, and additional percussion by Pauli Ryan. In the latter stages of the album recording, Garbage mixed "Only Happy When It Rains" twice before it was sent for mastering. At the last minute, Vig decided to increase the mix of the guitar tracks louder; he later claimed that the song still did not sound the way he wanted it to, in his head. The mixing was noted for Manson's voice being at the same volume level as the instruments, while in mainstream pop the singing is louder than the musical backdrop. The song is written in the key of G# minor, set in time signature of common time with a tempo of 120 beats per minute, and the chord progression is G#m–F#–E–C#m–E–F# in the verses and C#-F#-G#-A in the chorus.
The song's bleak lyrics were explained by Marker as a mockery of the angsty "wearing your heart on your sleeve thing" themes prevalent in mid-1990s alternative rock songs, as well as a self-deprecating reference to Garbage's own dark lyrics, with Manson explaining that the song was "a dig at ourselves because we like records that don't make us feel very happy, and at this so-called 'alternative' scene of 'we're so weird and more wonderful than everybody else'". Vig added that "'Only Happy When It Rains' was about what happened with grunge and the angst-filled thing which has dominated the American alternative rock scene. With us there's self-deprecation, we have to poke fun at ourselves because we're so incredibly obsessive about the songs and the lyrics, which makes us filled with self-loathing, hurhur." Garbage said they referenced both the title of The Jesus and Mary Chain song "Happy When It Rains" (1987) and Manson's own Scottish psyche. Lyrically, Manson described "Only Happy When It Rains" as "about wanting love but knowing life will always get in the way.... yet not being obliterated by that. It's a song for people that know what it is like to live on the dark side of life. It's about devotion but a different kind. A devotion to the truth and to freedom... and to hell with the consequences."
When "Only Happy When It Rains" was to be remastered in 2007 for Garbage's greatest hits album Absolute Garbage, the song had to be reverse engineered from a damaged backup DAT due to the analog masters for the debut album being lost, resulting in some discernible differences in the remaster.
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