Being a 34 year-old Marilyn Manson fan is a bit of a conundrum. I freely admit to enjoying much of his music, though not usually for the reasons that his predominately younger fans do. He doesn’t speak to me, and I find no solace or empathy in his nihilistic, pseudo-tortured ravings. I rarely wear black, I shop at Old Navy, and I prefer a good tuna salad sandwich to cutting myself. But what has brought me back, time and time again, are a few things: showmanship, interesting production, and creativity. Yes, Manson is an attention-whoring creepshow, but once you realize that its all part of a carefully crafted persona, designed exclusively to cause controversy, one might manage a begrudging respect for the man. Coupled with the fact that I enjoy his particular brand of arena-friendly, industrial-goth techno-rock, and I find myself routinely coming back for more.
Because make no mistake, one of Manson’s strongest points is his creativity. He draws inspiration from all over the map, and when it works, it works marvelously. His first album, Portrait Of An American Family, was carnivalesque industrial rock, a minor hit but a breakout nonetheless, mostly due to his morbid cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” 1996’s Antichrist Superstar was his real breakout, a fierce, furious, howling tornado of an album that talked in equal parts about celebrity, fandom, and God knows what else. It’s also one of my favorite albums of the 90’s. He followed it up with his homage to Bowie and 70’s glam, 1998’s Mechanical Animals, a much more heavily produced, electronica-influenced record that had some truly brilliant work on it. After that, it was strictly hit-or-miss. 2000’s Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) was a mixed bag, but 2003’s The Golden Age Of The Grotesque was a marvelous mix of punk, hardcore, techno and most interestingly, burlesque. It’s on those concept/homage/influence albums that Marilyn Manson is at his best — Mechanical Animals and The Golden Age Of The Grotesque are prime examples of these sort of era-and-genre-bending pastiches.
So with all of that said, we arrive at 2009’s The High End Of Low, Marilyn Manson’s newest effort, two years after the middling Eat Me, Drink Me. How does it hold up to his “classic” works? Not terribly well, unfortunately. Manson’s latest offering suffers from two main problems.
The first is simply that his shtick has become dated. Sad, but true. At this point, unless he brings something new to the table, there’s little more for him to say. A difficult proposition for an artist whose bread and butter has always been trying to shock the audience. He fails miserably here. There’s nothing new, no new ideas, no new inspirations, no new sounds. Which brings us to the second problem: it’s boring. I never thought I’d say something like that about Marilyn Manson. His albums have not all been consistently good, but at least they were listenable, interesting, and entertaining. Failing that, at least the production was polished, the beats heavy and rocking, and the sound engaging.
Not so here. Instead of treading new ground, Manson has slowed down, peeled off the multiple layers of production, and created a sound that sounds more like a lesser band trying to sound like Marilyn Manson. The effect is both disappointing and disconcerting. Right from the start, with the opener, “Devour,” you just feel like something is missing. It’s one of those slow-building songs that you expect to explode into a towering sonic riot, a la “Great Big White World,” the opening track on Mechanical Animals. Instead, it culminates in a bland, repetitive series of uninspired guitar work and while he screeches, “I can’t sleep / until I devour you / And I’ll love you / if you let me.” The second track, “Pretty As A Swastika,” is a little more promising, with a pounding beat and a hoarse scream of “Let me show you where it hurts” that gives the song the powerful sense of pain that he’s clearly going for. The title, of course, is idiotic, but the song itself is one of the stronger tracks. Other standouts (relative to the rest, mind you) are the later tracks “We’re From America,” with it’s Ramones-esque bop feel, and “I Have To Look Up Just To See Hell.”
Similarly, “Arma-Goddamn-Motherfuckin-Geddon” is a decent track, though I confess it really just sounds like a b-side track from Antichrist Superstar. With it’s incessant chanting of “First you try to fuck it, then you try to eat it,” it just feels more and more like, lyrically speaking, Manson is just playing the same tapes over and over, but throwing in more profanity and graphic imagery in an effort to keep people on their toes. The result is actually the opposite — rather than surprise me, I found myself more and more simply rolling my eyes. The worst culprit is the nine-minute snoozefest, “I Want To Kill You Like They Do In The Movies,” a droning, whining dirge that’s the aural equivalent of driving in circles through the fog. I’ve no problem with long tracks — when done properly, it can really showcase an artist’s ability to create and adapt and hook their audience. But instead, with the exception of some relatively intriguing guitar work, this one is just dull.
The last track I’ll mention is “Running To The Edge Of The World,” perhaps the most curious track on the record. It starts out with a strumming acoustic guitar that initially piqued my interest — subtle notes reminiscent of “The Man That You Fear” from Antichrist Superstar. The guitar strains play through the whole song, creating a striking dichotomy with Manson’s croaking, throaty singing, but the song is fundamentally flawed. There’s nothing special about the music — if anything, you could easily remove Manson’s voice and you’d have a the basis for a Nickelback power ballad. What does this tell us? That even when they tried something new, they didn’t succeed. Throughout the album, the music and programming just feels like a pale imitation of what once was, while lyrically, he desperately treads the same waters, unaware that he’s just slowly floating away from his listeners.
One can’t help but think that Manson’s time has passed. Not just because the cultural landscape may have evolved past his particular modus operandi, but also because his creative vault may well be empty. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, unless he continues to insist that he’s relevant and that he has new stories to tell and sights to show us. The High End Of Low clearly illustrates that this may not be the case.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.