By: Dave Cooper
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Released on June 10, 2016 via Stunvolume
Rarely has a band been welcomed back to active duty so enthusiastically as Garbage. The making of 2005’s Bleed Like Me was so difficult that it fractured the band, who elected to go their separate ways. Their fans, always particularly enthusiastic and engaged, were left reeling. So when the band announced their return with 2012’s Not Your Kind Of People, expectations were high. Happily, the faithful were not to be disappointed, although the album was similar enough to Bleed Like Me in mood and feel that some critics seemed to feel that the band were beginning to run short on ideas. Strange Little Birds – the band’s sixth record – is not shy about harking back to the band’s existing strengths, but it also manages to successfully tread some new ground whilst being rather different in mood to the band’s other recent work.
It’s immediately apparent that Strange Little Birds is an altogether more introspective record than its predecessor. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the opener ‘Sometimes’, which barely raises itself above a vocalist Shirley Manson’s spoken-word monologue, undercut with twitchy electronica. Lyrically, however, the song is vintage Manson, never happier than when she is proving everybody wrong. “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating / Sometimes I’d rather take a punch / I learn more when I am bleeding / You knock me down, then I get up“, she asserts, in typically bullish mood. As is so often the case, though, Manson’s plain-spoken determination is leavened with a vulnerability – as the song closes, she admits that “Sometimes I feel like I vanished in thin air / Sometimes I feel I’m not here.“Similarly, ‘If I Lost You’ consists largely of a pattering percussion loop and ghostly electronica, Manson’s forlorn vocal floating wraith-like on top, like smoke swirling in the heavy air of an opium den. Similarly low-key is the meditative ‘Even Though Our Love Is Doomed’, a spacey ballad in the style of previous Garbage triumphs like ‘The Trick Is To Keep Breathing’. Here Manson’s words and vocals are given ample space to carry what is musically a very simple song, but which becomes a masterpiece of restraint. Manson, always a master of the confessional, has rarely turned in a finer performance. It’s all the more powerful for being so low-key.
Garbage wouldn’t be Garbage without some broad, bold musical strokes, however, and for all the record’s overall air of restraint, there are sing-along anthems to be had that are as strong as anything the band have ever offered up. Lead single ‘Empty’ is a glorious piece of ear candy, its confessional verses making a strong contrast with the metallic middle-eight and a wonderful, swooning chorus. Manson’s defiant, blackly humorous lyrics have always delivered a delicious contrast with the spiky yet highly melodic approach of the band’s music, and ‘Empty’ epitomises that dichotomy as effectively as songs like ‘Only Happy When It Rains’ and ‘Stupid Girl’. Meanwhile, ‘Night Drive Loneliness’ marries the band’s knack for a killer chorus with a gothic flourish, its eerie verses and howling electronic winds contrasting with the sweeping choruses to great effect – it’s a bit like Lana del Rey re-imagined by David Lynch and Trent Reznor. At the other end of the sonic spectrum, ‘We Never Tell’ takes a very different approach, its joyous, clattering rhythm underpinning a tale of two soulmates delighting in being the talk of the town. “Let’s give ’em something to remember / Something to talk about / On their telephones / On their couch at home” croons Manson with evident relish. Ending in a wash of feedback, it is perhaps the closest the album gets to the live band feel that typified Bleed Like Me.
In some ways, of all Garbage’s previous albums, Strange Little Birds is most reminiscent of the band’s now-immortal 1995 eponymous debut, but whilst it might share some of that records sonic sensibilities, new ground is still being trodden, and sure-footedly at that. ‘Blackout’ is perhaps as close as the band have veered to progressive rock; clocking in at over six and a half minutes, it’s the very definition of a slow burner, its simmering verses and melodic choruses slowly building tension that is never dissipated. By the time the end of the song arrives, you’ll most likely find yourself on the edge of your seat if you hadn’t been sitting there already. the 10cc-quoting ‘Magnetized’ also takes a similar approach, its ebb-and-flow opening building into an anthemic but angular guitar line, as Manson struggles with the idea of a fatal attraction. “I’m not in love, I’m not in love“, insists Manson, but it’s clear that that’s wishful thinking. The album closes with another longer track in the form of ‘Amends’, which examines a fractured friendship. Manson admits that she was the cause of the friendships dissolution – “There is nothing you could say / To cause more hurt, or cause me shame / Than all the things that I have thought / About myself” – but is tired of the treatment she receives at the hands of her nemesis, who gets their revenge via silence and passive-aggressive manipulation. “It’s what you do to make it right / Matter of fact, it’s called revenge / Cut off your nose to spite your face / It’s pretty cool shutting me out“, observes Manson, before admitting that she hopes there is some kind of resolution. “So it’s a shame that we don’t talk / I miss your face and life is short / Get off your cross cause long goodbyes / Come every time, come every time.” The song leaves the listener wondering if the hatchet-burying Manson hopes for will ever materialise, as the song shudders to a halt with Manson lamenting “It’s time to change your mind / Cause I don’t know, don’t know you“. A wonderfully observed and utterly compelling mini-epic that surely everyone can identify with, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric and affecting way to close the record.
Manson is a modern-day anti-hero of sorts, her evident identification with and championing of society’s outliers a recurring theme in her writing. Each Garbage album has contained at least one song that directly addresses this worldview: from ‘Queer’ to ‘Beloved Freak’ and ‘Not Your Kind Of People’. Here Manson’s affection for the disenfranchised and the different is addressed by ‘So We Can Stay Alive’. In the face of a world that seems obsessed with its own darkness, Manson asserts that it is up to those who seldom speak to carry the flag of hope and destroy the mindset that stirs hatred and bigotry: “You’re the one who should be on trial / For all your hate and your denial / Be careful what it is you break / Every broken thing can’t be fixed / And all those fragile things we are / They find their voice, they find their power / They take a grip around your throat / They keep squeezing till your life runs out.” As usual with Manson’s songs of this nature, ‘So We Can Stay Alive’ feels especially timely given the divisive and manipulative brand of politics that has taken hold in the Western world lately.
Another of Manson’s recurring themes is more evidently autobiographical – that of a young woman who has been misunderstood and controlled by the people in her life who grows in confidence and understanding. Never before has she addressed these ideas than with ‘Teaching Little Fingers To Play’, a meditative but nevertheless stirring song that perhaps marks a newly developed sense of self for Manson. “I was young and naive / All I wanted to do was please, please, please / But things, they changed / And I’m a big girl now“, she sings – and the song manages to be the more bittersweet for her acceptance of the loss of that innocence, and the confidence that the change has wrought in her. The song’s coda makes that new-found confidence even more plain: “I’m all grown up / There’s no one around to fix me now“, that last line perhaps itself a knowing reference to ‘Fix Me Now’ from Garbage’s debut album. The gliding, easy groove that underpins the song gives it a deceptively smooth feel, at odds with the up-and-at-’em feisty, feelgood anthem that you half suspect that the song could have become in less sure hands. It’s one of the most affecting tracks on one of Garbage’s best albums to date.
Existing fans of Garbage’s music are likely to find Strange Little Birds very much to their liking: it successfully blends the more organic, band-oriented material with the widescreen studio experimentation of the band’s early material, and the playing is reassuringly fine – guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson are particularly worthy of praise for the deft way that they adapt different styles throughout the record, never working against the mood of the songs although it must sometimes have been hard to resist adding more layers to some pretty sparse songs. The sparseness of those songs are their strength, however, and its a credit to the band that they clearly realised as much. For those previously unconvinced by Garbage’s almost uncategorisable music, Strange Little Birds may just sway their opinions: this is the sound of a band newly at peace with itself, born of a new confidence and content to be themselves.