Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Garbage – Strange Little Birds [album review]

Released on June 10th

The normally reliable Garbage turn in their most disappointing effort yet on Strange Little Birds, their newest release. Studio album number six contains all the Garbage hallmarks that fans have come to expect over the band’s 20+ year career. There’s dense production, pop melodies, industrial and electronic textures, crisp guitars, and lead singer Shirley Manson’s vocal swagger that clashes with her depressing lyrical themes that time and time again return to her struggles with self-confidence.

As a longtime Garbage fan, I hate to admit that it’s started to get downright uncomfortable to continually endure Manson’s autobiographical lyrical pain. Take this snippet from “Magnetized” for example: “You bring your light, I’ll bring the pain/You bring your joy, I’ll bring my shame”. On the surface, how someone with her amazing talent, success, and looks still can’t seem to get past her perceived deficiencies seems like a mystery. Fans would be well-served to watch this fascinating recent interview she did on the CBC’s Q radio program for some illuminating insight. Manson’s angst is complemented by Strange Little Birds’ predominantly dark musical tone (the band is rounded out by producer/drummer Butch Vig and multi-instrumentalists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker). It’s easily their most brooding album yet, which is saying something for a band who don’t exactly go light on the gloomy material.

The moody opening track “Sometimes” sets the appropriate tone for such a cheerless album, but it feels meandering and undercooked. The airy “If I Lost You”, the slow-building “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed”, and “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” left the same impressions. The excellent “So We Can Stay Alive” and “Amends” (another slow-builder) resonated much deeper. Their fuzzed-out basslines and buzzsaw guitars really make the tracks stand out with their aggressive sound and laser focus. They may be in shorter supply on this outing, but there are a couple of tracks slathered in a highly melodic pop sheen, a style which Garbage has done so well in the past. “Magnetized” and “We Never Tell” are solid, but aren’t exactly in the same league as previous Garbage songs cut from the same cloth, such as “When I Grow Up” or “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)”. Resting somewhere between the light and dark (in terms of musical tone) are first single “Empty” and “Blackout”, where Manson shares her opinion of today’s pop music (“Try not to think, be cool, be calm, be fake/Dumb yourself down, numb yourself out/Fake it till you make it”). Once again, the songs are nothing more than average and rather unmemorable.

Five out of six great studio albums is a batting average most bands would kill for, so there’s no shame in the alt-rock veterans finally releasing a generally weak collection of songs. Garbage’s stellar track record is precisely what kept me repeatedly listening to Strange Little Birds at least a dozen times, hoping for that spark of engagement I’ve come to expect while listening to one of their new albums. Not this time.

Rating: C

Related posts: my June 2012 review of Garbage’s May 28, 2012 Toronto concert and my August 2012 review of their Not Your Kind Of People album