Strange Little Birds is far better than it has any right to be, as few bands ever deliver such a steady and satisfying record this far into their career.
Considering that they began roughly 25 years ago, Los Angeles quartet Garbage deserves applause simply for sticking around this long. After all, the band was among the most distinctive and popular acts of the early ‘90s alternative rock scene, and, save for a brief hiatus or two, it’s maintained an impressive amount of ambition and productivity ever since. Rather than fade away and/or sell out (like many of their contemporaries have), the foursome -- which, as always, includes Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig -- continuously stays true to their core identity while also retooling certain elements to align with the current sonic zeitgeist. This duality has never disappointed, and thankfully, it works as well as ever on the group’s sixth studio effort, Strange Little Birds. Though the LP isn’t as varied or experimental as its predecessor, 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, it is more cohesive and alluring, resulting in a superior collection overall and a strong addition to the Garbage catalog.
Of the album, the iconic frontwoman says, “The guiding principle was keeping it fresh, and relying on instinct both lyrically and musically” (NME); she also calls it Garbage’s most romantic album, clarifying, “And what I mean by romance, really, is vulnerability. I used to feel so scared, and I think that was why I was so aggressive—but I’m much more willing to admit weaknesses than I was before” (Mushroom Promotions). Without a doubt, Strange Little Birds strikes a resourceful line between freshness and familiarity, so although not every piece is equally notable, its overarching sleekness, rawness, and invasive catchiness yields a majorly hypnotic record.
The initial moments of opener “Sometimes” are superbly symphonic: cinematic strings meld with ominous, low piano notes to evoke the sinister breadth of composer Clint Mansell. Soon after, it blends into a dissonant trip-hop foundation, which complements Manson’s trademark tempered and seductive antagonism. It’s a chilling, harsh, and beautiful way to kick things off. Later on, “Blackout” keeps the menacing air yet also incorporates luscious rock instrumentation and intriguing melodies. In particular, its chorus is multilayered and appealing, with cautionary lyrics -- “Get out your head, get out your head / Try not to think, be cool, be calm, be fake / Dumb yourself down, numb yourself out / Fake it till you make it, break with the world / Blackout” -- that exemplify Garbage’s penchant for critical commentary.
The subsequent trio of tracks focuses on love and/or isolation with characteristic flair. “If I Lost You” is delicate and dreamy, as Manson’s angelic vulnerability cascades over light beats and sparse effects. In contrast, “Night Drive Loneliness” is heavy and foreboding, mixing starry vocal layers with a glittery synthesis of electronica and rock that suggests archetypal Garbage as much as it does No Doubt’s similarly confessional Return of Saturn. The true gem of the set (and, honestly, Strange Little Birds as a whole) is “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”, whose patient verses bleed into suspenseful pre-choruses before giving way to charming but tragic central realizations (“And even though our love is cruel / And even though our stars are crossed / You're the only thing worth fighting for / You're the only thing worth dying for”). Equally captivating is the arrangement, which is wonderfully chameleonic and mysterious to suit Manson’s shifting reflections. All in all, the song is easily the highlight of the full-length, as well as one of the best compositions Garbage has ever crafted.
“We Never Tell” recalls the joyful spirit of the band’s ‘90s output (think: “When I Grow Up”), while “So We Can Stay Alive” is quicker, denser, and more aggressive, with oscillating levels of intensity to produce one of the record’s most dynamically varied inclusions. “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” is another pensive and opaque slice of introspection whose tender harmonies and elegant yet distressed atmospheres make it soar; it also concludes with a fitting lead-in to closer “Amends”, which combines industrial tones, fierce rhythms, mournful guitar arpeggios, ghostly ruminations, and multifaceted temperamental changes to deliver a powerful and magnetic finale.
Despite its prodigious sense of sonic invigoration and melodic majesty, there are a couple lesser offerings that detract from the complete package. Specifically, both “Empty” and “Magnetized” feel too by-the-numbers and safe. Both are still confident, robust, and enjoyable in their own ways, and they certainly fit into the sequence well; that said, they’re also comparatively commercial and uninspired, which is a bit disappointing.
As clichéd (and perhaps indirectly insulting) as it may sound, Strange Little Birds is far better than it has any right to be. In other words, few bands ever deliver such a steady and satisfying record this far into their career. For many artists, creativity and enthusiasm deplete as the years amass, but Garbage proves to be an exception here. The four players have kept a tight bond over the last quarter-century, as their unique and fruitful chemistry ensured that the group never resorted to a line-up change, let alone a significant disbandment. Garbage has always seemed fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their relevancy to the surrounding culture, so there’s no doubt that the quartet will conclude their run when necessary. As Strange Little Birds demonstrates, though, that moment won’t come anytime soon.