I’m always rooting for Marilyn Manson. This is strange for multiple reasons, the first of which is that at one time he was the opposite of an underdog: one of the most (in)famous people in the world, ubiquitous and hyper-relevant. He was possibly the last true Rock God™ to date; everybody had an opinion on him and chances were it was a strong one. The second thing that makes my well-wishing odd is that, circa 1996/97, the precise time of Marilyn Manson’s cultural ascendancy, I detested him and everything associated with him. This likely owes to the hype and the cult surrounding his shock antics more than anything, although it can’t be ruled out that the feeling was exacerbated by my just entering a long “too good for the mainstream/ ‘oh you’ve probably never heard the stuff I listen to’” phase. But at some point in college, a rummage through a roommate’s CD collection found me giving the seminal Antichrist Superstar a (sneering) spin. And it won me. There was a real underlying intelligence and cynicism about the nature of culture itself that, in combination with the spooky atmospherics and Trent Reznor’s lovely electronic dressings helped sell what in essence was simple, primal punk-metal that I didn’t know I needed. The follow-up, Mechanical Animals, was a pleasingly shiny reinvention in the Bowie vein (much to Bowie’s chagrin) and Holy Wood was a nasty contemplation on violence that felt relevant even as it indicated diminishing returns.
But for all his “singular-artist-too-wild-to-tame” bravado, Manson has always been a creature of collaboration. Each album had always had a very distinct flavor, a result of a constantly revolving cast of bandmates and producers (which is why I refer to Marilyn Manson in terms of the artist as opposed to the band). His acrimonious split with Reznor segued to an eventual sort-of partnership with Tim Skold which, on Golden Age of Grotesque, Manson’s last album with Reznor’s Nothing Records, led to a raw industrial metal sound that marked an end to the old era. The next Skold album was the first away from Nothing and heralded the beginning of the new lost-in-the-wilderness era defined by totally forgettable, pretentious and meandering offerings released every couple of years and by lots of people saying things like “Haha Marilyn Manson is still around?” You may have said it yourself when you saw this review posted. Well yes, he’s still around. And on his latest effort, The Pale Emperor, he’s shacked up with Hollywood score wiz Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy, Watchmen) and it seems that the change of company might be just the thing to help Manson find his way out of the sticks.
Firstly, there’s the sound of the record. It’s gorgeous, jagged, edgy and freezing cold; the vocals buzz malevolently. It’s the first time the production on a Marilyn Manson album has really announced itself since Mechanical Animals and like that LP it is distinctive and exciting. There are new sounds musically as well, as Manson has added a strong blues presence to many of the songs on The Pale Emperor that put an older devil in the old devil rock. He even elects to try a few new vocal tricks; at the end of album opener “Killing Strangers” he infuses his signature scream with an unhinged desperation that results in an anguished, vulnerable wail.
The two singles off the album provide a window into the variety of sounds presented. “Deep Six” is up-tempo with a tight, metallic core and a clipped, raging chorus. Dogging its heels on the playlist is “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge”, a stomping dirge whose ringing guitars, screechy feedback and ragged moans perfectly evoke the sense of an intimacy formed in excess that can only end badly, one way or another.
To me though, the signature (if not necessarily the best) track off Emperor is “Birds of Hell Awaiting”, a nightmarish soundscape through which Manson’s simple, repeated lyrics referencing the eponymous demonic beasties can echo and blow like cold wind through an ancient ruin. The riff is evil-blues all the way and combines with the relentless, unvarying drumming to create a hypnotic and dramatic effect.
There are a few other notables as well. “Devil Beneath My Feet” is one such, a spiteful bit of fun that sees Manson recapture a bit of the ol’ minister-o-the-Church-o-Satan swagger with lyrics like “at least I know wherever I go / I got the Devil beneath my feet”. And for a throwback to the Antichrist days, “Slave Only Dreams to Be King” pairs the somewhat Manson-standard chug-stomp rhythm with screechy-freaky guitar wails reminiscent of the end of “Mister Superstar”.
If it sounds like I loved The Pale Emperor, I didn’t. And it’s not even as though there are many actually (completely) bad songs. Indeed, in partnership with Bates some exciting new things were brought to the table. If only he had also elected to eschew his old bad habits, namely a slavish devotion to precious lyrical cleverness and tuneless, moaning vocals that seem to have spawned more from a desire to wedge his oft-questionable poetry into a rock format than from a desire to create impactful melodies. Another factor that drags the album down is that the songs are far too long, with none of them under four minutes, and most of them over five. The (non-deluxe) album closer “Odds of Even” combines all of these faults to end on the weakest point of the whole exercise. It’s over six minutes long, totally devoid of energy, vocally aimless in the extreme and oh my god the lyrics. “This is the house of death/ Even angels die in the arms of demons”. No kidding. Repeated mercilessly. Even the best tracks suffer from some mixture of one or all of these ailments, which rob them of much of their power and make what could have been a great record into a merely pretty good one.
But ultimately, it is pretty good. After the moribund last few records, I was ready to be as depressingly bored with The Pale Emperor as I had been with Eat Me Drink Me, The High End of Low or Born Villain. And I’m pleased to say that I’ve even found a couple of these new tracks cheekily rattling around in my head when I wasn’t paying attention. However, as much as I’d like to think that Marilyn Manson is through his slump years and will carry forward with increasing vision and focus, I just have the sneaking suspicion that the improvements here have as much to do with hanging out with the right crowd as anything else. But I could be wrong. I hope I am. Like I said, I’m rooting for him.