Last year, Garbage celebrated the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut album. The timing was impeccable – pop culture’s ever rotating wheel of influence had already spun back to the ’90s post-grunge scene that birthed them – but it raised the question. What does a veteran band do when a new crop of exciting artists, like Wolf Alice and Black Honey, are mining your back catalogue for inspiration, whether that’s Garbage’s multimillion-selling debut or guitarist Butch Vig’s instrumental work in producing Nirvana’s era-defining second album ‘Nevermind’. ‘Strange Little Birds’ quickly answers that question: you zoom back to 1995 with the rest of them.
So we find the Scottish/American band recapturing the moody, grungy atmosphere of their first album, but injecting it with fresh zeal and enthusiasm. Frontwoman Shirley Manson has described the record as the band’s “most romantic” to date, and also as her most “vulnerable”. Given she’s synonymous with attitude and toughness, that comes out in a surprising level of openness and honesty in her lyrics, which imbues them with a serious emotional impact.
On the slinking electronics of ‘If I Lost You’, she’s jealous (“There are times when I see you talking to other girls / I feel insecure”) and fatally in love (“Sometimes I believe that I might die if I lost you”). On ‘Empty’, a true ’90s rock throwback, she proves even icons can struggle with ego and self-doubt (“I’ve been feeling so frustrated / I’ll never be as great as I want to be”). But the album’s rawest lines come right at the start. “Sometimes I’d rather take a beating / Sometimes I’d rather take a punch / I learn more when I am bleeding,” she admits on sinister and stormy opener ‘Sometimes’.
It’s winningly relatable, even through its darkest moments, and it’s the antithesis to the very 21st-century practice of presenting an Instagram-ready picture of your perfect life. ‘Strange Little Birds’ is a record that’s human to its very core, revelling in flaws and failures, but never losing hope. And in that way, it’s the perfect mirror for its creators’ 22-year career.