Quite who Garbage are designed to appeal to in 2016 is somewhat of a mystery. Coming to prominence around the advent of Britpop, they were seen as a smarter alternative to the scores of boozed-up, tracksuit-clad lads with a clear trip-hop influence bleeding into their alt-rock and the captivating delivery of frontwoman Shirley Manson. But now, when literally everything is available at the drop of a hat, Garbage have been elbowed into the nostalgia pile with the rest of their ’90s compatriots. Thus, Strange Little Birds feels like an experiment by Garbage to see whether they can still stand out in the current climate and if they can continue to compete with their peers, and they definitely hit one of those two things.
Strange Little Birds finds Garbage at their most languid and drawn out, leaving out any obvious radio singles in favour of something a lot braver. It’s a welcome change of pace; bands of their vintage tend to streamline and tone done their sound at this point in their career (Skunk Anansie’s Anarchytecture from earlier on this year is a good example), but Garbage have refused to let their age show with their more oblique fare. Crucially, there’s still a sharpness to their approach too; where the likes of Feeder and the Stereophonics have watered their sound down to nothing more than broad pub-rock, Strange Little Birds sees Garbage as still a tight, slinky proposition. Blackout‘s stabs of guitars and electronics juxtapose brilliantly with Manson’s wistful, seductive vocals and Even Though Are Love Is Doomed takes a bleak, minimalist approach with its plucked guitars, while the slithering cello of Night Drive Loneliness has exactly the sort of poise and elegance you’d expect from a band with a Bond theme under their belt.
As an album, there’s very little immediacy to it. Bar the electro-grunge romp of lead single Empty, Strange Little Birds is an album that relies on subtlety and heady atmosphere, shown on the likes of If I Lost You or Night Drive Loneliness. Both tracks are very minimalist in approach (the former especially with its eerie beats and static crackles), but build up a wall of sound all the same in brooding instrumentation and sultry vocals. Because of this, Strange Little Birds is pretty much guaranteed to not click straight away. It’s definitely a grower in the way it gradually unveils itself, and over repeated listens its charms begin to reveal themselves, as well as its status as an album that’s as compelling as it is brooding.
It’s an impressive listen, that much is certain, but it feels as though that only really applies in Garbage’s own corner of the alternative universe. When compared to their contemporaries, Garbage might as well be the most exciting band in the world, but slotting into the bigger picture where the super-modern rules, Strange Little Birds‘ ambient and trip-hop sounds feel incredibly dated by comparison. And while they certainly can’t be penalised for this by any means, it does feel like a tiny bit of stagnation is brought about because of this. Couple this with a handful of tracks near the end that are too drawn out and uninteresting for their own good, and Strange Little Birds is prevented from being the magnificent comeback it could’ve been.
But there’s no denying that Strange Little Birds is surprisingly solid regardless, and puts Garbage in the unlikely position at the summit of the ’90s Britrock pile. But even on its own, it remains a captivating and well-crafted album. While Garbage may have been spending their recent years plugging away in the background, Strange Little Birds isn’t the slapdash product of complacency that it could’ve been. If this album represents the second coming of Garbage as a real force, it’s a damn good place for them to start.
For fans of: Portishead, Massive Attack, The Black Queen
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Strange Little Birds’ by Garbage is out now on STUNVOLUME.