For all its emphasis on youthful rebellion, rock and roll relates to age in more-or-less the same manner as every other section of society. In theory, everybody’s hot and therefore at their zenith of marketability at 22, hence the grossly inflated pressure on musicians (especially and disproportionately women) to hit their stride and figure all of their shit out before they turn 30. In practice, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles made more money last year than just about anybody, proving that seniority can reap massive financial validation, even if you’ve always been bad at your job.
Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker are not nearly as old or as rich as Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles. But give or take an extended hiatus, they’ve been Garbage for almost as long as Justin Bieber has existed. A few months ago, Garbage released their sixth album, Strange Little Birds, plausibly their greatest accomplishment since the human race’s pre-Biebs era. Given the modern classic statuses of their 1995 self-titled debut and ’98 follow-up, 2.0, matching or topping those records this ostensibly late in the game — deleting any lingering affiliation with ‘90s nostalgia in the process — is maybe a feat worth making a fuss about?
“If you’re willing to listen hard, there’re a lot of bands who’ve done their better work in their later careers — my favorite Queens of the Stone Age record was their last go ‘round,” says Manson, casually dismissing the need to make a fuss while fielding a phone interview from a fussy Vanyaland scribe. “I’m just pleased to know we made a good record. I don’t care how it’s received or what people have to say about it. I’m kind of monstrous to myself, so if I feel this confident about something, that’s rare.”
Appearing at Boston’s House of Blues on Thursday (July 28), Garbage rematerialized from a seven-year limbo in 2012 with Not Your Kind of People — a better-than serviceable offering that did not expand the boundaries of what the Garbage-listening public tended to expect from a Garbage album. Once upon a time, Manson and co. functioned as a bleak pop act surrounded by sad man rock, and Not Your Kind of People carries on that tradition. But Strange Little Birds deploys the sort of ambitiously cinematic soundscapes usually associated with, well, typically, heavier acts. Garbage’s mid-to-late ‘90s incarnation — what we, until quite recently, considered their peak version — could not have recorded Strange Little Birds …or at least wouldn’t have, for entirely practical reasons.
Unlike some of their previous studio outings in which the band was locked in a building and not allowed to leave until they finished an album, Garbage worked one week on and three weeks off putting together the latest LP. Manson credits the lighter scheduling for her company’s enhanced “critical ear” and an “urgent dynamic,” leaving them with far less time to second guess themselves or overthink instincts. It probably didn’t hurt that there weren’t any junior marketing and promotion executives showing up and bossing everybody around, either.
“We’ve long since made peace with the fact that we’re not going to get played on the radio anymore,” says Manson. To wit, in the good (?) old days before Garbage ran Stunvolume, their own label, “The radio people at the record label would say, ‘We can get this song played on the radio if you just cut it down one more minute’ and we don’t have to deal with any of that anymore, so we can just leave pieces in. I don’t think that kind of non-self-editing is always a good idea, but on this record, for dealing with the kinds of things we wanted to talk about, it was appropriate.”
Manson remains as disinterested as ever in singing about politics with a capital P, but can’t avoid politics with a lowercase “p”, particularly this year. Much of Strange Little Birds tags Manson’s familiar lyrical touchstones — obsession (“Empty”) desolation (“Night Drive Loneliness”), and self-loathing (“Sometimes”), for instance — but the bigger tracks tackle bigger pictures. Nearly seven-minute aural saga “Blackout” hunts for clarity in a world swarming with readily available numbing agents. Then there’s “So We Can Stay Alive”, which expresses the sort of alarmed exhaustion that sets in when homicidal rampages hijack the current events cycle on a weekly basis.
“I like to look at the gathering storm and know what I’m up against,” says Manson. “I understand why people want to put their heads under the covers, listen to modern pop radio and forget about things. But it comes to a point where you just can’t do that anymore.”
It might be fun to speculate that Garbage’s distaste for zeitgeist pop prompted a distancing from pop itself — but, eh, Manson sounds more like she’s talking about the same culture-wide fixations on superficiality and additions to lifestyle porn that’ve grinded her gears since always. “I just find myself really bored when listening to love songs or people talking about how rich and famous and successful and lucky they are,” she adds. “I just don’t connect with those kinds of messages in any way shape or form. They bore the living shit out of me.”
While Strange Little Birds marks a transformative phase for Garbage, it’s reassuring to hear that over the past two decades, Manson’s attitude about sunshine and clear skies probably hasn’t changed too much, even if she’s mastered the art of her craft.