It has been four years since the last helping of Garbage goodness, 2012’s release Not Your Kind of People. Garbage fans lengthy wait for new material ends on June 10th with the release of Strange Little Birds the band’s sixth album. On “Strange Little Birds” the band goes back in time to reacquaint younger fans with what makes the band members Alternative Elder Statespeople. However the album doesn’t just dwell in the past but takes what is spectacular about the band, their impeccable musicianship and large vocal presence, and judiciously mixes in the best of what is currently on hand in the studio. On the release the guiding principle for the band musically was keeping things fresh and relying on instinct. Thematically it is Shirley Manson and Co. reacting to seeing popular music become this shiny, happy, poppy thing and their giving into the urge to inject some darkness and grit back into the general music forum.
The album was recorded over a lengthy period, between 2013 and 2015. The album title is a tribute to Garbage fans as it refers to the fan letters the band receives. The entire band and Shirley’s husband, producer Billy Bush, produced the album in Red Razor Studios in LA. The band returns intact with Shirley Manson providing lead vocals, legendary Butch Vig on drums and synths, Duke Erikson on guitars and bass and Steve Marker on guitars and bass. Their intermittent work in the studio produced over 20 songs originally; these were pared down to the 11 on the release. It is also the second album released independently by the band on a record label on their own imprint, Stunvolume Records. The freedom of an independent label allowed the band to set their own pace. What results is a powerful rock blueprint with modern electronic furnishings filled with a raw emotional feeling.
Strange Little Birds is informed by Manson’s chagrin at the state of music today. She describes the present scene as, “Everybody’s fronting all the time, dancing as fast as they can, smiling as big as they can, as they working their own brand.” She continues, “Nobody seems to have the courage to say, “Actually I’m lost and I don’t have a freaking clue what I am doing with the rest of my life and I’m frightened.” Shirley along with the band looked to provide a healthy dose of confrontation and confession into the music world. The release attempts to show that shortcomings and mistakes are reality and not the false perfection of conformity that has invaded Rock and Roll; a once iconoclastic art form now made boring and predictable.
Strange Little Birds is a seemingly effortless meshing together of Garbage’s past musical history and present aspirations. The album presents the paradox of vulnerability along with an aggressive rejection of embracing victim hood and surrender. It harkens back to the debut as a talisman that provides the inspiration for the release. Upon hearing the beginning of the first track Sometimes there can be no doubt you have entered into the wheelhouse of what Garbage does best. It is an edgy atmospheric ride. There are a lot of things going on, chattering synths, strings and stark minimalist sections. These all lay the groundwork for a song that discusses acknowledging shortcomings and taking measure. “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating…I learn more when I am bleeding.” It is vulnerable and confrontational but most of all it is an instant classic Garbage track. Empty continues the vibe with immense energy and hooks galore. The drums and guitars are spectacular and best described as crisp and crunchy as they rampage out of the speakers. The lyrics look at the uselessness of striving for image over reality, “Sometimes I feel so frustrated I’ll never be as great as I want to be.” “Empty” is an anthem for the times we currently inhabit. It is an extremely addictive track.
The ambient influenced Blackout was the result of the group winging it, and sonically recalls songs like “Queer” and “As Heaven is Wide” off their debut album. It is a song that takes on society’s dictates that one must give up on inner instincts in order to conform. The lyrics offer the realization that there is a high cost to pay in the stifling of the inner voice. “Get out of your head, be calm, be fake, try not to think, be cool…dumb yourself down, numb yourself out.” It is a frightening picture that is painted and made all the more effective by Manson’s whispery vocal that is both erotic and sinuous. If I lost You is a lovely dark love song that ponders the what ifs of a relationship. Questioning why when good fortune and the lover of your dreams come along you can’t believe or trust it can happen. Those doubts in the end can undermine the relationship. The musical accompaniment provides a throbbing palpable darkness that goes hand in hand with such deep dark introspection, providing a dreamy quality to a splendid tune.
My personal favorite Night Drive Loneliness reveals the band’s excellent ballad composition skills. Unfortunately they don’t often get a lot of credit for those skills as their faster works get all the attention. This track begins with a droning guitar that leads the way to a Goth inspired result. It is hypnotic and atmospheric as it portrays someone pining for a lover to return after a fight. It is loaded with yearning and uncertainty and conveys the ache that exists in the desire for love. Manson’s come hither vocal styling reminded me of her deft vocal treatments on songs like “Milk” and “Vow”. It is a song that gets under your skin with each listen. The tongue and cheek title of the track Even Though Our Love is Doomed sets the stage for the discussion of why we bother to love others and questions is it worth it. It also examines our own self doubts and fears which are what rips apart many a relationship, “Why do we kill the things we love the most?” Not to be missed on the track is the excellent deep bass line intro and the magnificent build to an explosive climax in the final quarter of the track. Magnetized is another stand out track. It is loaded with the techno goodness Garbage is known for while providing an excellent dance groove that breaks out half way through the song. The chorus is huge as the song speaks to the age old situation of opposites attracting and the inability to fight off the attraction. “I’m magnetized by you; there is nothing I can do, that’s all I can say.”
On the energy laden dance track We Never Tell Manson delivers an enervated vocal performance that is a counterbalance to the electricity of the accompaniment. It has all the signature elements of Garbage while the song’s theme is lovers keeping their secret life away from the prying eyes of the world. The existentialist inflected So We Can Stay Alive tackles how we distract ourselves from our inevitable end; because we would be paralyzed by the truth. The song is loaded with bombast and engages all the bells and whistles serving up a dark but satisfying selection. The pulsing synths and chattering strobe sound provide for an epic arresting track.
Teaching Little Fingers to Play features a layered vocal treatment as this haunting ballad unreels. It suggests that one had to acknowledge and then walk away from the damage of youth. It goes further by suggesting that you are the only person who can bring on that catharsis. Acknowledged is that the process is painful but in the end worth the struggle because as the lyric says, “If you don’t grow you calcify.” The song is evocative and hypnotic with strong powerful lyrics.
Amends is a slow burner of a song that begins with a glitchy intro and follows topically along the same lines as “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.” It is facing the abuser and forgiving them in order to put the damage behind you. The track points out how wallowing in trauma is like, “Cutting off your nose to spite your face.” In the end you have to deal with the demons before they take you down and forgiveness is the only thing that leads to healing. It is a dramatic track that brings the release to a spectacular end.
Strange Little Birds puts on display all the power and glory that Garbage had attained through their two decades of existence. Every member of the band is a seasoned pro, each member seems to have grown in abilities and they have displayed impeccable taste throughout the years. There are times you can hear the enjoyment the band had in making this record and their decision to go independent has only enhanced their creative fires. As a long time admirer of the band the album fills me with excitement at how rich and textured the entire release is as each listen bringing out another excellent feature. “Strange Little Birds” is a very effective way to introduce younger listeners to the band and provides a gateway to their other stellar releases. Once again “Strange Little Birds” reinforces the fact that listeners are always secure in Garbage’s brilliant musical hands.