Darkness was always Garbage’s forte, really, wasn’t it? A melancholy polished with a pristine sheen, something that was so well-crafted and received in their eponymous debut and the splendour of its follow-up Version 2.0. Later efforts meandered, producing moments of brilliance amidst patchy collections of songs that were deeply affected by either record label pressures, internal band conflict or, as in the case of their 2012 comeback, Not Your Kind of People, a slight lack of confidence.
That first release on their own label Stunvolume may have suggested a nervousness from a band unsure if there was an audience still waiting for them, but Strange Little Birds, their sixth album, shows no such tentativeness. The shackles of industry expectation have been thrown firmly to one side, allowing the band to comfortably re-embrace the brooding and the introspective, reminding us just how good they can be at layering dark melodies and quirky sounds with gloomy lyrical romanticism. When it comes to making sorrow sensual and captivating, Garbage have got it in the bag.
Album opener ‘Sometimes’ sets the tone from the off. Rather than the punchy, attention-grabbing tracks they tend towards, this is slower, sparse piano and morose electronic strings, before jumping into single ‘Empty’ with its almost gleeful refrain of ‘I’m so empty’. Hardly a surprise from a band that was only happy when it rains.
Shirley Manson has always sung of love – albeit often a twisted version – but where she shines is in her portrayal of the vulnerability of being so utterly captivated by another that love’s power is both enchanting and terrifying. Most obviously highlighted in ‘If I Lost You’ but more creatively expressed in the oppressive ‘Even If Our Love is Doomed’ – the vocal of the latter was recorded in one take, increasing the edgy feeling of uncertainty. Even loneliness takes on a seductive edge in ‘Night Drive Loneliness’, inspired by a letter given to Manson by a Russian fan. Loneliness feels almost like another lover, arriving in the middle of the night, for which Manson’s got her ‘high heels / and my lipstick / my blue velvet dress in the closet’.
There’s not too much groundbreaking here – but there doesn’t need to be. Garbage have already done that long ago. What there is is the taking of things they do so well, breaking it apart, and building it back up again to create something new but distinctive. In the latter half of the album, Manson notes ‘We might cheat death if we worship it’ and that sentiment rings true with their attitude towards their craft. Strange Little Birds they may be, but they’re not alone and have nothing to fear, and they know it. And perhaps that confidence will be enough to pull some new little birds into the fold.