Sound — 8
It's been over two decades since Garbage released their self-titled debut album, where its eclectic hodgepodge of sounds and genre influences was met with critical acclaim. But as Garbage continued to chase that ambitious quality in the following "Version 2.0" and "Beautiful Garbage," the tense and difficulty-laden writing process of their fourth album, 2005's "Bleed Like Me," resulted in a burning out of the band's drive, with them going on hiatus shortly after the album's release.
With that time apart to rejuvenate and let tensions dissipate, Garbage got back together to work on their returning fifth album a handful of years ago, opting to keep this reunion under wraps, and keeping the album independent, for the sake of minimizing pressure and further nurturing the simple spirit of their creative process. The resulting album, 2012's "Not Your Kind of People," brought forth another amalgam of genre styles - from the synth-spiced dance rock likes of Electric Six, dreamy shoegazing a la The Joy Formidable, and the punchier post-punk revival sound of [insert any British indie band from 2005 here] - but for the most part, the album's goal of getting Garbage back in the saddle was achieved.
After that recalibrating nature of "Not Your Kind of People," it's no surprise that Garbage's sixth album, "Strange Little Birds," takes a big step into different territory for the band's sound. With the most primary element in the album being the synths, they're just as capable of building atmosphere (heard in the downcast "If I Lost You" and the cryptic, Massive Attack-esque likes of "Teaching Little Fingers to Play") as they are at being loud and aggressive (heard in the cacophonous, AWOLNATION-esque crest in "Even Though Our Love Is Doomed"). And compared to the prim and proper synth elements in their previous album, much of the synth sounds in "Strange Little Birds" bear more of a modular roughness, which conjures a considerable amount of industrial flavor to the album, but Garbage opt to further mix that with other genre flavors, like the analog grit paired with post-rock guitarwork in the serenely hazy "Magnetized," and the menacing synths paired with symphonic melodies in "Sometimes."
As flexible as the synth elements prove to be, they aren't always a sound investment, and the dated acid arpeggios thrown in the closing ballad of "Amends" only manage to come off as extraneous and encumbering for the song's ambitious arrangement. But in a good measure to keep the synth-heavy sound of "Strange Little Birds" evened out, Garbage also spend a few moments simply jamming out on their conventional rock instruments, whether it be the straightforward pep of "We Never Tell," the "Superunknown"-type guitar lick in "Empty," or the pedal-happy array of guitar layers in "So We Can Stay Alive" that calls back to the "Garbage" days.
Lyrics — 8
While she's never been shy to write about her inner conflicts that partly contribute to interpersonal relationship troubles, Shirley Manson's lyrics in "Strange Little Birds" have her diving head first into the plethora of negative thoughts and depression. With the opening "Sometimes" serving as a confessional map for all of those inner conflicts to be covered, the early stretch of the album has her addressing the depressive impositions of disconnection (in "Empty"), loneliness (in "Night Drive Loneliness"), and the futility of overcoming such with a "fake it 'til you make it" strategy in "Blackout." But though she hopes that a relationship will quell that solitary depression, she shows how that ends up not being a feasible answer, which spawns new manifestations of negativity, whether it be the doomed-to-fail relationship in "Magnetized," the near debilitating dependency issues in "If I Lost You," and the all-for-nigh bargaining to delay an inevitable separation in "Even Though Our Love Is Dead." But in chronicling all that which she weathered, she shows growth in the end, displayed in the rousing independence of "Teaching Little Fingers to Play," and the initiative to seek closure with a failed partner in "Amends."
Overall Impression — 8
It was Garbage's penchant for an innovative that both awarded them praise early on, but as a penchant that also demands an increasing amount of innovation with each record, it also set them on a path that eventually wore them out in their original stretch. But after their returning album re-acquainted the band with their groundwork as an alt-rock act, "Strange Little Birds" shows Garbage once again indulging themselves in their desire to mix and match familiar sounds with new styles, and with the album wielding a sound that's both cohesive and fresh for the band's catalog, Garbage prove that their creative drive has regained its ability to push the band's sound forward in a mindful direction.