What Garbage brings to the table will likely be ignored.
Twenty years after its prime, Garbage is back with Strange Little Birds, an album with many of the same merits that defined its heyday, but not nearly as compelling.
Back then, alternative music was a true alternative to the glut of vapid pop that ruled the airwaves. Producer Butch Vig helped lead a number of alternative bands to the mainstream. You might remember them: Nirvana or The Smashing Pumpkins? Some would pinpoint these bands as the end of truly alternative music and the beginning of a genre that record companies would use to sell everything that appealed to youth who wanted to be seem different — which is to say, youth.
Around 1993, Vig decided that he wanted to be the guy behind the outspoken, empowered Shirley Manson, who didn’t give a fuck and turned out to be an iconic rock vocalist. Together with Steve Marker and Duke Erikson they wrote the sort of songs that propelled the first two Garbage albums to critical and commercial acclaim. These records brought a sincerity and edge to pop music which was refreshing back then. Powerful songs, deep grooves and outstanding production quality made its singles a feast for the ears.
We’ve come a long way both socially and musically. Some may even argue we’ve gone backwards. It’s fair to say we’re not where we once were. What Garbage brings to the table will likely be ignored, despite the fact Manson has stated that the album is a manifestation of the band’s frustrations with the state of the world.
“Sometimes” shuffles out a dark and off-kilter intro inspired by Tricky and Portishead. Manson’s voice is recorded right up front like its own bass instrument, and though the track shows promise, a piano tames the otherwise mounting aggression, pulling the teeth out of the whole thing.
Lead single “Empty” is the quintessential Garbage track. Combining a layer-cake of effects with effective lyrics and an anthemic outpouring by Manson, the song structure strikes that balance between great sounds, great beats and just enough angst to remind you that Donald Trump is a few votes away from ruining everything. Unfortunately, that’s the high point. Subsequent tracks find Manson mumbling through little more than filler.
While “If I Lost You” and “Night Drive Loneliness” are nice little pop tracks with dark overtones, nothing comes close to the pounding slap-in-the-face that Garbage introduced with “Stupid Girl.” It’s good in the way that a cold draught at a dive bar is good. You’ll take it on a hot day, but it isn’t what you might have hoped for.
On the gentle, meandering pop of “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” Manson sings in an almost overwrought breathiness. Clearly something has been lost, and by the time the album nears its end it feels monotonous. Closer “Amends” comes off like a trip-hop track without the stark moodiness, copious strings adding just noise and pomp. The last few verses are a suitable album closer, turning “Amends” into the sort of energy you wish the whole thing had had.
Strange Little Birds is a worthy addition to the Garbage catalog and while old fans may celebrate it, the band won’t win any new ones. Given the state of the world, one wonders if the band is frustrated enough.