Four years on from their last studio album (and a year on from the twentieth anniversary re-release of their self-titled debut, in case you’d forgotten who they were), Garbage have come out with another new record. Entitled Strange Little Birds, the band have described it variously as 'keeping it fresh' and as having 'the most to do with the first record than any of the previous records'.
This indecision with regards to what era it is for them is, unfortunately, audible on the album. It sounds varyingly like an attempt at a step forward that feels more like a lurch and an exercise in a nostalgia that feels a bit awkward given that they’re echoing sounds that seemed a bit futuristic ten-to-20 years ago. The album doesn’t really hang together as a result, and feels like neither a proper step forward nor a successful homage to their past. The lurches forwards are just too awkward and random - the heavy, intermittent drums in ‘Sometimes’ are so jarring and unpleasant that they ruin what might’ve actually been a really good song, and, like the equally incongruous intermittent dramatic power chords in ‘So We Can Stay Alive’, they don’t add anything.
Meanwhile, tracks like ‘Empty’ and ‘We Never Tell’ sound like classic Garbage songs that sort of don’t need to exist because it feels like they already do. We don’t get anything from these songs that we didn’t from their first five albums (or indeed their first two to be honest). They’re pleasant enough, danceable with a Nineties-y vibe that might be pleasingly retro if they weren’t an actual Nineties band. And ‘Night Drive Loneliness’ doesn’t even have that going for it, coming across even as cheesy and a bit desperate in its heavy-handed look-we’re-a-Nineties-band-ness: “Got my high heels and my lipstick / My blue velvet dress in my closet”. The Noughties-throwbacky ones pretty uniformly fall on the cheesy side too. The chord sequence and harmonised chorus vocals in ‘Blackout’ are cringingly OTT, and lyrics like “Be cool, be calm, be fake” are squirmingly cliché (see also: couplets like “You give an inch, I take a mile” in 'Amends', the cheesiness accentuated by Shirley Manson’s voice-drop).
All this isn’t to say the album doesn’t have its moments; it’s just that those moments are to be found in the lower-key songs. ‘If I Lost You’ and (even, despite its melodramatic title,) ‘Even Though Our Love Is Doomed’ feel like hidden gems. Lower in energy but still with a chorussy enough chorus, ‘If I Lost You’ is interesting and unique enough in its relative minimalism. The lyrics of the verses are considered and direct, and the closeness and clarity of the lead vocal they’ve opted for for the first time on this album really work for them. If it weren’t for the grating repeated drum sound on ‘Sometimes’, it could have the same effect, and even be a great song. If only the album had been made up of songs where they’d allowed the songs to be low key and interesting, it could’ve been really good.
4Nina Keen's Score