Scottish-born Shirley Manson and her band of epic Wisconsinites, Garbage, are likely hiding in your playlists, somewhere. You might even have 1998’s Version 2.0 on cassette, buried deep in a cache of relics that will be dug through during existential quarterlife crises. Also, if you’re like me, you will remember gothing out and rocking to “Stupid Girl”, “Push It”, and more, meditating to the chaos of their music videos in an era predating YouTube.
This year’s Strange Little Birds, however, is the first Garbage record since 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, but more than that its their first record in years that has a distinct flavor and a lack of label pressures. The group’s sixth record inhales pop sensitivities and exhales essence of electronica (“We Never Tell”). It bends syncopation to vocal demands from a seductive and/or coercive Manson (“Night Drive Loneliness”, “Teaching Little Fingers To Play”). The doubled guitars crunch whenever they must (“Sometimes”, “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”). In press for the album, Shirley Manson claims that this release was “less fussed over,” an indication that winging it old-school while utilizing the wisdom that comes with age can be a successful formula.
While Manson stands tall at the front of the group, a lot of credit should go to Garbage’s continued efforts as a cohesive unit here. Butch Vig’s percussion and looping effects gives Garbage’s 2016 auditory animal one killer heartbeat after another, particularly strong on “So We Can Stay Alive” and “Amends”. The duo of Steve Marker and Duke Erikson add the appropriate synths and guitar grit required to pull the song’s strings accordingly. When retracing their steps to their well of alt rock tricks, Garbage will likely please plenty of longtime fans, all whilst developing new ways to clear the overgrowth on the path that’s grown since their last visit. However, much like Not Your Kind of People, they won’t win a ton of new fans here or prove that they’re trying a lot of new things. But there’s nothing wrong with taking a dozen shots and hitting a nostalgic sweet spot a couple of times.
Buried late on Strange Little Birds, Manson sings about how “we might cheat death if we worship it.” On its face, that line is a bit of gothy drama, but its meaning could stretch so much farther. From the gorgeous, cohesive production to the effective sonic resurrection of the late ’90s, Garbage pours their heart and soul into the instruments. It’s still not the most original thing in the world, but at least now we know that they’re confidently continuing to choose it for themselves. They are the birds, soaring free. They are the strange, refusing to fix things that ain’t broke — but also unfortunately refusing to fix things that might use some tinkering. Let us all join the feathery flock and fly free.
Essential Tracks: “So We Can Stay Alive”, “We Never Tell”, and “Teaching Little Fingers To Play”