As the frontwoman and primary songwriter of Garbage, Shirley Manson has spent the past twenty years pledging allegiance to her demons. And as the world gets darker, she’s been feeling it. “This year has been crazy, I must admit,” she told the Voice on a phone call. “It just feels like a bomb went off.” This is where her music comes in: Garbage’s mission, Manson says, is staring into the chaos, weaponizing it, and reclaiming it. “I must remind myself — or else I’d never be able to get out of bed — that despite this year seemingly being chaotic, frightening, and bewildering, there are also great things that happen, and people do extraordinary things.”
It’s been over twenty years since the band — Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig — came together in Madison, Wisconsin, and they’ve since lost their hold on the Billboard charts. But their celebratory, sorrowful spirit continues to resonate with audiences worldwide. June’s independently released Strange Little Birds , their sixth LP, marks a return to the glossy grunge of their self-titled debut and, on Monday, helped them pack Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield for a two-hour set spanning their entire discography and emotional spectrum. Speaking a week before the show, Manson was fretful about playing a sprawling outdoor venue. “I like darkness, and with outdoor open areas, you’re unable to control it in the same way,” she says. Being the “pessimistic Scot” that she is, she “like[s] to go in with a little trepidation [so she can be] surprised and delighted” by the results.
She should have been delighted with her performance, and she certainly looked that way onstage. Judging from her dramatic antics and impassioned interjections (“Let’s go, boys!” she boomed midway through “Stupid Girl,” as the band neared the bridge), Manson didn’t seem intimidated — if anything, her stage presence has grown more powerful. “During our hiatus, I started working with an acting coach, because I was doing a TV show [Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles] at the time,” she explains. “She totally changed the way I move onstage — I feel like talk is cheap at this point.”
The enigmatic alt-rock icons’ setlist leaned heavily on the big hits (“I Think I’m Paranoid,” “Stupid Girl,” “Special,” “Vow,” “Push It”) and highlights from the new album (“Empty,” “Blackout,” “Beloved Freak”) but Garbage still kept the die-hards happy, with searing takes on lesser-known cuts like “Shut Your Mouth,” from Beautiful Garbage, and Bleed Like Me‘s “Sex Is Not the Enemy” (the latter of which Manson dedicated to the LGBTQ community).
After an evening of cathartic highs and relatively few lows (the momentum-killing, mid-set twofer of Strange Little Birds ballads “Beloved Freak” and “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” notwithstanding) Garbage saved their most explosive statement for last — “#1 Crush,” a paean to doomed, delirious love included first on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and, probably, on practically every mixtape made by an angsty, lovelorn teen thereafter. Eyes closed, Manson stretched her hand out over the crowd, grasping at some phantom on the other side as she moaned a destructive creed: “I will burn for you/Feel pain for you/I will twist the knife and bleed my aching heart/And tear it apart.”
On first listen disturbing, the song’s latent violence took on a more comforting tone in light of life’s horrors at large in 2016. After all, Garbage may be a band, but they’re ultimately saboteurs, diving down into the void with relish so that we might realize we’re not alone, that all pain will pass if you let it. “In our band,” Manson said, “We like to look at the shadows, because we like to see what we’re up against.” Judging from their live show, Garbage couldn’t be better equipped for the task.