I found Garbage in my freshman year of college in Chicago, deep in the winter of 2004. I hadn't yet embraced my identity as a gay man — that wouldn't happen until the following spring. But in a Days of Our Lives Internet chat room, I found a friend who, like me, had been raised on soaps by his mother. Amid this weird bond that marked us as different (if not decidedly gay), my friend introduced me to his favorite band. You need to look no further than "Queer," the third single from the band’s 1995 debut, to get why two college students who weren't quite gay to the world would find fellowship in the work of Shirley Manson and her motley crew. The song wasn't written for the gay community, but I made it mine. Walking around the campus during those winter nights, seeing boys and girls hand-in-hand for warmth and intimacy, the lyrics "the queerest of the queer, the strangest of the strange" rattled in my brain like a pledge of allegiance.
If you've used music to soothe pain at any point in the last 20 years — and what living human hasn't? — there's a good chance you've listened to Garbage. Moody, evocative songs with refrains like "You look so fine, I want to break your heart and give you mine" (from 1998's Version 2.0) appeal to the brokenhearted, the outcast, the not-yet-out teenager crippled by unrequited crushes. The band's sixth album, Strange Little Birds, due out June 10, takes its rightful place in that catalogue of desire. It's a concentrated dose of Garbage's "theme of complete and utter obsession," as Manson explained earlier this month at a listening session at Hollywood's historic EastWest Studios. As someone who once pretended to have never heard The Beatles so I could get a guy on my dorm floor to introduce me to each of their albums, I can say it's a theme that resonates.
Strange Little Birds hits the idiosyncrasies of need, of longing, of being a fucking scammer just to experience a brief moment of intimacy. "I am so empty, you're all I talk about," Manson sings. This is an album for those people. It's a love letter to fans who have held prized memories of Garbage songs safe in their minds and hearts, like glass menageries, long after they were released into the world. "Sometimes I feel like I vanish, sometimes I feel like I'm not there" are the words that open the album — an apt frame of mind for a band that actually made a quiet comeback in 2012 with their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People, which was overshadowed by a 20th-anniversary tour for their self-titled debut.
Garbage drummer and coproducer Butch Vig, who penned the upbeat yet heartbreaking track "Even Though Our Love Is Doomed," calls Strange Little Birds cinematic — another fitting description. The album often brings to mind the metallic flourishes of "The World Is Not Enough," the Bond theme the group released in 1999. It sounds sinister, synth-heavy, and full of screeching guitars, like a John Carpenter film. Nothing is more evocative of a final girl running from a frightening nightmare than the way Manson sings "I got my heels, my lipstick, my blue velvet dress" on "Night Drive Loneliness," another standout track. There's even a song that was originally recorded for a vampire film — "Blackout" (though it was called "Bring Out Your Dead" then) — before the band decided to keep it for themselves.
Or keep it for us, rather. Garbage performed four of their new songs that night in the chilly, padded studio, a space that felt like a mausoleum to music's past — it's where The Beach Boys made Pet Sounds, and Nirvana mixed their recording for MTV Unplugged Live in New York there a few decades later. The highlight of the four songs was "Blackout," whose vampiric roots were never more apparent than when Manson stalked the audience, making eye contact with every person in turn as the song possessed them. During this moment I felt caught, startled that she realized I'd memorized most of the lyrics during the album listen — but then a wicked smile let me know that it was OK. She and Garbage understand possession obsession (not the Hall and Oates song "Possession Obsession," though maybe they should cover it), and this album is meant for their fans' darker emotional impulses.
Strange Little Birds ends with laments: "I'm all grown up, there's no one to fix me now." On the last track, "Amends," Shirley continues to tell a lover, "I don't know you. I don't know you." It's as if Garbage understands that once this album is released, their fans will immediately glom onto to its themes of rejection, of feeling like a lost outsider. When she says "I don't know you," she's speaking to the song itself. By the time you've heard it, it will no longer be hers.