Rediscovering EXTRA: Garbage’s Strange Little Birds

I’m gonna be honest and upfront with you guys: with only three albums left to go after this one, I am looking to play judge, jury, and executioner more than I should be. Music is a completely subjective, fake pursuit, and I’m not obligated to like anything, of course! But man, I’m finding myself having to really think these out so I don’t just toss them. A project gone on too long? Perhaps. But I am, ultimately, a fair man. I will give them all their due.

Garbage's Strange Little Birds

Here comes the last of the extra Rediscoverings (this one was buried in my closet): Garbage’s 2016 album Strange Little Birds.

My previous experience, if any

I will always associate Garbage with the embarrassing memory of my girlfriend poking me once and saying that, for a band I say I like a lot, I sure don’t sound terribly positive about them sometimes. They’re conflicting–but yes, I do really like them! There’s no real band quite like them, a cut-and-paste electro-pop-rock outfit with an intense, combative frontwoman that borrowed from everything going on in the 90s, from pop stars to trip-hop to jungle to grunge. Their first three albums are staunch favorites of mine, especially beautifulgarbage, which nails the blend the best of the lot and is truly the most consistently catchy Garbage album you’ll find.

The history lesson

After petering out in the postmodern 2000s (guess everyone else doing the plunderphonics sample culture thing made them a little less novel), Garbage reunited for Not Your Kind of People in 2011. This is the follow-up to that album. 90s acts reuniting on Rediscovering have been a little spotty, so Strange Little Birds had me curious how another one of these legacy acts would hold up in the age of social media (blegh) and cheap digital recording. Could they put a new spin on an old act? How has their style aged with them?


One thing that strikes me about Strange Little Birds is how it manages to embody Garbage, but sound like one, solid piece throughout. Shirley Manson moans exactly like Shirley Manson across all 53 minutes (more on that later), they still like their big choruses and effected drums, and they still have their cinematic, score-style songwriting. Birds sounds purpose-built for night driving; picture streetlamps and building lights in the night, and that’s what this sounds like. The bass on this puppy could probably be heard from outside your car on medium volume.

“Empty” is both a great lead single and also sadly a little out of place, but it reminds me a lot of beautifulgarbage‘s singles, especially “Breaking Up the Girl”, while “Magnetized” has that loud and chopped thing going on that “Parade” from the same album did. All four songs are excellent. For moodier cuts, “Blackout” has a really excellent bassline and bass tone, and “If I Lost You” manages to redeem a kinda boring verse with an excellent chorus and some really fantastic harmonies.

This is exactly the kind of album I now think of when I hear reviews refer to legacy acts as “skilled craftsmen”. There’s no genre exercises, no “this is our Frank Sinatra song and this is our Phil Spector song” songs. It’s Garbage going in and writing a Garbage record, exactly as they’re written, mixing big guitars, string sections, drum machines, and moaning, ever-so-seductive vocals in equal measure.

Aaaaand that’s kind of the problem with it.

I don’t like picking on lyrics. R.E.M. proved that you can sing the liner notes of a gospel record and have it be catchy. Shirley Manson could serenade me with the ingredients in a box of pancake mix and it would probably work. But man, there’s no way around it–this woman was 49 when she recorded this and has the same lyrical concerns she did when “Temptation Waits” was tracked in 1997. It is jarring. Here’s a bit from “If I Lost You”, which I’ll expand on later:

There are times when I see you talking to other girls
I feel insecure
And every time I see you walking out
I wonder if you’re coming back to me

You tell me I’ve got nothing to worry about
They’ve got nothing on me
You tell me I’m a good girl and you know it
Are you so strong, or is the weakness in me?

And something from the next track, “Night Drive Loneliness”:

I got my high heels and my lipstick
My blue velvet dress in my closet
Got my phone on vibrate
All I do is wait


I’m so nervous
Like a cat on a hot tin roof and
I want to get wasted
Forget all about it
Like the blue dress in my closet

For “If I Lost You”, for a love song dedicated to a man she married six years prior, it sounds a whole lot like, uh, people my age. And listen–I haven’t been there yet. I’ve got a few years until 49. Maybe I’ll still be worried about losing my wife then. I just feel like I won’t feel it quite like I do now. For “Night Drive Loneliness”, apparently it’s inspired by a letter from a 19-year-old fan, but can you really embody that thirty years later in your life?

It has to be intentional. She is aware on the passage of time. You can hear traces of “When I Grow Up” and Version 2.0 in general on “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”, and she namedrops “Fix Me Now” from their self-titled debut on its chorus. For a song about being a big girl now and changing things up, I think you’d have a hard time telling these from the lyrics she wrote in the 90s.

Does it ruin the music? Eh, not really? A little? This stuff is very moody heavy rock anyway, bad vibes coming with it aren’t that out there, plus, the sound of her voice is still as lovely as ever (if a little samey after an hour). It’s just bizarre to peek inside the sleeve and see Shirley in heels with bright pink hair lounging in this red velvet chair in this vibrant, slightly wrecked garden with Duke, Steve, and Butch in all black, standing around looking like, well, old men.

The gatefold art for Strange Little Birds
Apologies for the bad stitch, I don’t own a scanner anymore, so this is from Discogs.

It’s a good album. If you enjoy old Garbage, you’ll find something you like here. I think I’ll need to revisit it once the pile’s over myself. This one really took its second listen for me to start finding stuff I really liked about it.

One final parting shot: the packaging my copy came in is genuinely terrible. It’s a cardstock sleeve literally just folded into two pockets on the sides like a gatefold LP. You get a booklet with lyrics in one (yay thank you) and a the CD, unprotected, in the other. This pocket is either so tight, you have to touch the disc to get it out, or so loose that the disc falls into the spine of the sleeve and means you can’t close it until you reopen it and adjust the disc.

Cheap, cheap, give me my jewel case.

Are you keeping it?

Yeah, for now.

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