Vocalist Shirley Manson says Garbage’s sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds, is “less fussed over” than any of the quartet’s records to date. This isn’t a code word for sloppy—that would never fly with the band members’ production and mixing backgrounds—but her assessment does describe the record’s airy arrangements and light sonic touches. Unlike 2012’s Not Your Kind Of People, which was all sharp angles and a marbled sheen, Strange Little Birds is atmospheric and meditative.
Minimalist ’90s electro inspires the languid “If I Lost You,” a deeply romantic song with flickering funk blips and oscillating effects which resemble drags on a cigarette. “Night Drive Loneliness” drips with intermingled seduction and regret, which fits its spy movie-theme vibe. The cobweb-coated, smoldering “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” meanwhile, boils over into a grinding, droning denouement where Manson repeats the song’s title with increasing agony. And “Teaching Little Fingers To Play” is soft-glow synthpop with a blue-black gothic tint.
Strange Little Birds isn’t all downtempo or dirge-like, though. “Blackout” sounds like an outtake from The Cure circa Pornography, between its rumbling bass and Manson’s creepy-witch singing. Highlight “Empty” is a compact slice of jagged electro-rock, while both “Magnetized” and “We Never Tell” boast bustling electronic programming, slashing guitars, and soaring vocals. Strange Little Birds’ closest sonic kin within Garbage’s catalog is 1998’s Version 2.0, another album whose aggressive songs also have room to breathe.
Most notably, however, the album gives Manson room to stretch out and draw power from vulnerability as well as ferocity. Her voice is at the front of the mix, unsullied by distorting effects, which leads to striking performances. Despite its tender declarations, “If I Lost You” has uncertain, unsettled undertones, while the ominous opener “Sometimes” explores emotional polarity—forgiveness vs. destruction, jealousy vs. insecurity—and the strength that’s often needed for resiliency.
Garbage’s sound has always been futuristic—it’s what’s helped the band endure and stay relevant. But 20-plus years after forming, each band member is still fired up to mine new sounds and approaches for inspiration. That willingness to be uncomfortable and look beneath the surface makes Strange Little Birds a rousing success.