Review: Garbage’s Dark ‘Strange Little Birds’ Is Their Best Album In Years
In 2014 Garbage began working on their sixth studio album, the follow-up to their 2012 comeback record, Not Your Kind Of People. They slyly shared pictures of their whiteboard full of song titles, and it seemed that the album was almost ready to be released. Instead, 2015 was dominated by a 20-year anniversary of their debut album, Garbage, and the band took their time finishing up the new record. It was early 2016 when they excitedly announced the name and release date for Strange Little Birds.
The band has compared Strange Little Birds to their self-titled debut album, much like they did when Not Your Kind Of People came out four years ago. There is some truth to this, but Strange Little Birds also has so much more going on. It’s not a repeat of Garbage, and while it does have some of the same elements, the new album also combines characteristics of their other records with a new perspective and sense of vulnerability. It has the raw instrumentation of Bleed Like Me, the cinematic flourish of their Bond song “The World Is Not Enough,” and the coolness and darkness that the band has embodied throughout their career. It’s a culmination of all this and more.
Drummer Butch Vig warned that Strange Little Birds may take a few listens to really get into. It is a difficult record that may not necessarily grab you the first time around. For this reviewer, though, it was love at first listen, and it just gets better with each play. It is true that “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” took some extra effort; “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” is quirky and light but the least impressive from the new album. But those two songs aside, the whole record is instantly addictive. Songs like “Empty,” “Blackout,” “Magnetized,” and “So We Can Stay Alive” will capture you from the first notes.
Strange Little Birds builds up beautifully, introducing difficult themes both lyrically and musically. Feelings of insecurity, destructiveness, jealousy, gloom, and anger define many of the songs. Frontwoman Shirley Manson sings low, her voice coming out in a sinister whisper or a dangerous growl. But it’s not all melancholy; other songs are rather upbeat and energetic. Rather than using her deepest register, Shirley sings higher than usual and instead sounds innocent and sweet. More than any album before, Shirley is using the full range of her voice.
Musically the album is propelled by bass, drums, and guitars to an extent, but Garbage fills it in with unusual sounds – flickering, whooshing, scraping noises that paint a complete atmosphere. It makes Strange Little Birds sound unique and un-replicable. The songs move between eerie and delicate, savage and spirited, brave and vulnerable, cinematic and minimalistic. There’s a romanticism to Strange Little Birds, as Shirley said there would be, and it gives the album the softness needed to balance out the rougher songs.
Overall, Strange Little Birds is an excellent album that shows Garbage is still at the top of their game. It is possibly their best album in 15 years, and it will capture the adoration of longtime fans and newer listeners alike.
Track by Track
“Sometimes” – The first song on the album has been described as something of an intro for Strange Little Birds, and it certainly does set the tone. It opens in a minor key, piano and strings providing dimension and a cinematic quality. After about 30 seconds the song gets more distorted, with heavy music broken up and interspersed with moments of silence; it’s reminiscent of the band’s first opening track, “Supervixen,” from their 1995 album Garbage. “Sometimes” finds Shirley singing about getting knocked down and getting up again, oscillating between needing to forgive and wanting to destroy, and feeling afraid but doing it anyway. It’s a moody track and a great way to prepare the listener for the rest of the album.
“Empty” – “Sometimes” leads into the first single from the record, “Empty.” While the song is energetic and almost celebratory in its sound, it also has a feeling of being lost or anxious. Shirley expresses her frustration, wondering what’s wrong with her as people pass her by. She’s fixated on “you,” spending all of her time thinking and talking about her one obsession. Shirley repeats a line from “Sometimes” when she says “I want to destroy” the monsters and demons she battles. “Empty” has a classic, positive-despite-the-gloom Garbage sound, and is a song that fits well within their whole catalog.
“Blackout” – Flickering, percussion, a strong bass riff, and stabbing guitars build up to start off “Blackout.” Shirley sings lows, almost in a whisper, helping add to the song’s eerie vibe. She croons, “Your anger burns inside your eyes, they flash like burning coal.” Suddenly the song grows bigger as the chorus comes in, Shirley directing you to “get out your head, try not to think, be cool… fake it til you make it” as a chanted “lo lo lo” fills the background. “Blackout” has a distinct sound that recalls ’90s alternative rock, while the bridge could have been on a song from Garbage’s 2005 record, Bleed Like Me. To put it in the words Shirley sings, “Blackout” is “beautiful like shards of glass” and is an unmissable highlight on the album.
“If I Lost You” – Shirley wrote this song about her husband, Billy Bush. “If I Lost You” has a low-key style that’s akin to songs like “Queer,” “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing,” or those on the band’s third album, Beautiful Garbage. Shirley sings of insecurity and jealousy, wondering if her husband will return to her as he walks out the door in spite of his reassurance. She sings higher in the choruses, confessing that she believes she’d die if she lost him; it’s pretty and almost sounds happy if not for the predictive lyrics. “If I Lost You” is a dark love song that’s vulnerable and honest in a rare glimpse of uncertainty and fear of the future.
“Night Drive Loneliness” – According to the band, the fifth song on the album was inspired by a fan. It starts with the sound of rain – recorded by Shirley at her home in LA – before it chimes in with echoing guitars and synths. With her high heels, lipstick, and a blue velvet dress in the closet, Shirley sings about waiting expectantly for someone to call. Her voice is complemented by a tinkling piano that reflects the sound of the rain heard at the beginning. In the first two choruses Shirley beautifully harmonizes high vocals with low ones, though by the last chorus the melody is inverted and full of strength. “Night Drive Loneliness” ends with our protagonist still “all alone, all alone.”
“Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” – This song was written by Butch Vig, and although Shirley normally writes the lyrics, she loved this one as it was. She recorded the vocals all in one take – and it was her first time singing through the song. This lends “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” a certain rawness that brings the lyrics to life. It’s a slow, minimalistic song that gradually adds pulsing layers and grows until its pounding finale. Shirley sings rather low, pondering “why we kill the things we love the most” and asking if you can “love me for what I’ve become.” Despite all the obstacles, Shirley declares that “you’re the only thing worth fighting for” and they’ll be together through it all. It’s a gloomy song with seeds of hope, and Garbage describe it as the centerpiece of Strange Little Birds. It also the gave the album its name.
“Magnetized” – The album starts to pick up again with “Magnetized.” Over a buzzing pulse, Shirley announces that “I’m not in love” and repeats it again to make sure you got it. And although she claims “there will be no future tense for us,” she is undeniably attracted to this person like a moth to light. The chorus is explosive, and on the second verse Shirley sings higher, this time describing what would happen if she gives in to her desires: “You bring your light, I’ll bring the pain; you bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame.” Although she would “risk everything,” the last verse is Shirley’s repeated “I’m not in love,” this time in an attempt to convince herself more than anyone else. It’s all a fantasy. “Magnetized” is a lovely song and a highlight on the album.
“We Never Tell” – “We Never Tell” continues the energetic momentum and actually sounds rather happy and youthful. It starts with a coy “This is my time with you, I’m not giving it back” and by the chorus she admits, “I want you, I know you want me too.” It’s a love song in which the pair are dreaming up a secret universe to share. “We Never Tell” is upbeat and cheerful, and although it’s a bit repetitive by the end, it’s something that will be enjoyed again and again.
“So We Can Stay Alive” – Things turn a bit darker again on “So We Can Stay Alive” as Shirley sings, “Imagine this: we make things right, so beautiful, we cling tonight to all our dreams, we pin them up.” She thinks they could cheat death if they worship it. She’s interrupted by three harsh guitar strums, breaking up her lines and giving the song some aggressive power. Shirley sings high on the chorus before moving into a more dynamic second verse that’s filled with layers and the “bam bam bam” guitar hits. She warns to “Be careful what it is you break, every broken thing can’t be fixed.” The song starts to fade out with drawn out guitar feedback, but it’s a trick ending; “So We Can Stay Alive” continues for another two minutes as Shirley continues to repeat the title over the music. It’s a definite standout on Strange Little Birds.
“Teaching Little Fingers To Play” – Fun fact: The title of track number ten comes from a piano instruction book Butch had as a child. But this song doesn’t seem to be about learning a musical instrument. It starts with a short repeated “ah ah ah ah” vocal, acting as the percussion before the drum comes in. Shirley talks about being “young and naive” when “all I wanted to do was please please please.” But she’s a big girl now, and she’s taking things into her own hands. It’s a quirky song that’s pretty fun and light compared to the rest of the album. Another fun fact: Shirley namedrops “Fix Me Now” (from the band’s debut album) during the chorus of “Teaching Little Fingers To Play.”
“Amends” – Strange Little Birds ends with another dark, cinematic song. “Amends” is angry without being overly aggressive, simmering rather than boiling. It’s vengeful, but we also find Shirley wanting to move on more than anything else. She sneers, “You gave an inch, I took a mile; you lit a match, I set a fire.” Later she adds, “We are both changed, yet nothing has; when will you let me off the hook and let me pass?” At this point strings come in and the song builds up, Shirley finally spelling out that “it’s called revenge.” “Amends” is an amazing and powerful song that closes the album perfectly. It leaves you wanting more, and you have no choice but to start the album all over again.
Highlights on Strange Little Birds include: “Empty,” “Blackout,” “If I lost You,” “Magnetized,” “So We Can Stay Alive,” and “Amends”
You can buy Strange Little Birds on iTunes now. You can also get physical copies on the band’s official website; vinyl editions come with a bonus track called “FWY.”