It’s as if they never stopped – like 4 years has passed like a flash since their comeback album Not Your Kind of People. Irish dark femme Shirley Manson, drummer Butch Vig, bassist and guitarist Duke Erickson and guitarist Steve Marker pick it up where they left off setting up the tone for Garbage’s sixth album, Strange Little Birds. Manson, in particular, with her trademark deadpan sexy fatalism, which is immediately apparent on the opener Sometimes. “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating…I learn more when I am bleeding”. It seems the arsenal of self-deprecation and irony is still fully loaded. It’s something of a lament of the absence of darkness and vulnerability in the current state of pop music that fuels this particular fire for Manson. Which might also explain the over-helpings of cynicism and a lack of fun. You have to wonder if old age has made her more than a little bit grumpy. She might still be sporting pink hair and fishnets but ol’ Shirl can’t hide her growing discontent in music, life, and other stuff. Let’s face it – things are what they used to be in the Goth rock world, these days.
Manson’s compared this album to their original self-titled debut, in that it was some kind of studio clash offering to counter the DIY garage grunge that was dominating the airwaves in 1990’s. For her it’s a “romantic” record. ” 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.” Each song, she says, addresses different points in her life between herself and someone she’s loved. – hot spots where she was afraid, vulnerable, defensive.
…Birds maybe more serious but what lacks in humour it makes up for in up for in grit. There’s something of a keen determination here to prove Garbage are not just another bunch of middle aged has-beens hoping to get back on the bill at Coachella. In fact, that is perfectly manifested in the words to Teaching Little Fingers to Play, which confronts the effects of aging head on. The Morricone production on the song gives the guitars futuristic spaghetti western treatment making this a very cool little ballad. I often wonder what it would be like at the retirement village when the listeners of hard rock all move there. Would Def Leopard and Led Zep be played those morning tea entertainers in the communal lounge? Or would stuff like this even be on the playlist?
As promised throughout this record Manson exposes her vulnerability like an open sore, especially on the oddly upbeat but melancholic If I Lost You and the accompanying slow burner Night Drive Loneliness. On both she takes the uncharacteristic role of a fawning and jilted lover, vainly waiting by the phone for any sign from her man. This is not the Shirley Manson who once spat venom on Stupid Girl. This is a pathetic, apologetic version of her former self. It’s a little perplexing. The self-deprivation continues through the aching slow ballad Even Though Our Love Is Doomed, which also provides a phrase for the album’s title. It’s all about the concept of fatal attraction and odds against. It also seems very personal and somewhat cathartic. At times all that self-wallowing gets a little dull. Occasionally the slower ones come together. Magnetized is template Garbage, stuffed full of obvious references to 10CC’s deliciously ironic I’m Not In Love, but unfortunately this much synth-based soft rock is way too candy-coated to sustain multiple listens. But the majority of the album still sports the grungy hooks, barbs and walls of guitars we’re used to from this band. The best example is on the single Empty, which is textbook Garbage. Manson appears on the song’s video looking exactly the same as she did two decades ago – dyed hair, sexy skirt and ‘don’t mess with me boots’ – some kind of statement to younger players that she’s still very much here – and don’t you forget it!
Rock’n’Noise is still at the heart of this band’s work, though. Their need to prod and procrastinate still seethes under the skin. The politically Fuelled So We Can Stay Alive Is a full on assault-fest, in the style of their last two albums, building menacingly up to a bass and guitar argument so ferocious it almost explodes in on itself. If you’re an Old Skool Garbage fan then this is one song you definitely want on your play list.
Lead single “Empty” is Garbage-by-numbers: more self-deprecating lyrics, layers and layers of vocal overdubs and a mix of release and attack moments – quiet punctuated by blasts of metallic guitars and thundering drums. For me this was the album’s highlight. I wanted more of this. Sadly, it was the only track in that mould. Sure, this is a strong release from a band that always straddles the thin line between alt-rock and mainstream whilst reaching long for that credibility but there’s value in sticking to the knitting, even if you’re casting on from a more comfy chair these days.