Some important noises on Garbage’s sixth album, ranked, ascendingly: the whispery wobble in the deep background of “If I Lost You,” the strobe effect that gradually overcomes “So We Can Stay Alive,” the liquid-metal guitar that keeps boiling up between the verses of “Empty,” and — best of all — the electromagnetic buzz, a speaker cone’s death-rattle, that illustrates “Magnetized.” The quickest way of ensuring that Strange Little Birds is better than any other Garbage album this millennium is to promise that at least one of these — or a selection of your own — belongs alongside the lurching, stop-and-start guitar from “Supervixen,” or the menacing skitter of “Hammering in My Head,” on a list of the best noises this band has produced so far.
Like Veruca Salt’s Ghost Notes, Weezer’s “White” album, or The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Strange Little Birds is good news for fans of the 1990s. There could hardly be a sound more indicative of that decade than Garbage’s: the fertile, radio-friendly delta at the confluence of grunge, shoegaze, and trip-hop. From a hater’s perspective, they were an opportunistic Frankenstein, pieced together from burgled shreds of Curve and Portishead. From ours, they were a small miracle: a band of giddy producer-musicians whose magnetic singer and taste in machinist sonics helped them transcend their own thievery.
Garbage had radio-ready hooks and they had Shirley Manson’s wry, frosty purr — but they also had sounds. Their 1998 apex, Version 2.0, was an overstuffed masterpiece of sonic generosity, the kind of album that introduces a weird, wobbling screech the moment Shirley Manson sings “This is the noise that keeps me awake,” so you’ll know what she means. The 2001 follow-up beautifulgarbage distilled this glossy synth-rock into a still glossier pop, shallow but achingly sweet; after that, the band grew stodgy. Alongside the stripped-down new stars of a shrunken, humbled rock industry, the multi-tracked sludge of 2005’s Bleed Like Me was an awkward reminder of a gaudier time; after a long, glum hiatus, 2012’s Not Your Kind of People helplessly recycled old glories for a game but disappointed audience of old fans.
The same fate threatens Strange Little Birds, whose most direct appeal is to people who miss Garbage and hadn’t been expecting to hear them again. But, birdlike, the album escapes. It’s the band’s strongest set of songs since Version 2.0, and you can hear the confidence in their own hooks and their own sounds. Confidence is what frees them to start the album with “Sometimes,” a nugget of crawling trip-hop that raids Portishead’s third (and best) album the way ’90s cuts like “You Look So Fine” raided their first; it’s what gives them the guts to delay “Magnetized,” whose monumental chorus rises to the sky like nothing else here, by almost half an hour. (Highlights of that half-hour: the merciless robbery of Celebrity Skin on “Empty,” the shameless slow-burn melodrama of “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” and the sour Bond guitar on “Night Drive Loneliness,” here to remind you how much better “The World Is Not Enough” is than anything Sam Smith will ever write.) It’s what gives Shirley Manson’s voice — sinuous, sultry, roughened since 1997 and better for it — the power to shove the goth-girl romanticism of her lyrics past any defenses you may mistakenly have erected. It’s what made them approve that cover.
This isn’t an innovative album, even by Garbage’s synthetic standards: its vision of pop-rock futurism was more or less conceived in 1995, and the band’s genius for borrowing has mostly stuck to the same old creditors. It’s a more conservative album, too, than Bleed Like Me, which found the band looking forward, off a cliff. But it successfully excavates old and gorgeous Garbage: digs it up, dusts it off, reassembles it, and lovingly crafts replacements, piece by vivid piece, for the strange little sounds that have rotted away.