Who is Marilyn Manson? Or more precisely, what is he? With the release of an unlikely seventh album, The High End Of Low, you’d think there might be some straightforward answers, but as typifies Manson’s career, he’s as mercurial now as he ever was.
A classic triumph of anti-style over substance, the pre-Millennial Marilyn Manson was a satisfyingly threatening antidote to an era best known for its political indifference and pestiferous boy bands. Seminal albums such as Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals will always remain among the brightest post-grunge beacons of the late 1990s.
But these high points were succeeded by a number of underwhelming releases, and the do-gooder jury that reluctantly took a sallow-skinned anti-hero to its heart is now baying for some overdue blood. With The High End Of Low, Manson isn’t quite as fretful as he was during his previous outing, Eat Me Drink Me, but he’s not exactly in full goose-stepping mode either.
Manson’s obvious shtick has always been his shock value. But he has a problem; by virtue of being shocking then, he is simply not that shocking now. Manson was, for a period, this generation’s Gothic anti-Christ. A victim of his own success, Manson’s cadaverous charms are no longer as startling as they once were. Kids used to buy a Marilyn Manson record to rebel against their parents. Now, most parents breathe a sigh of relief if their offspring reach adulthood without a reliance on opiates, firearms or Calpol prescriptions. Whatever Manson is, he’s certainly more dilute than he’s ever been.
His stultifying image problem has coincided with drawn-out respites, another drawn-out respite disguised as a greatest hits compilation and a couple of below-par albums. This album sees Manson revisit past glories by reincorporating the Nine Inch Nails-esque industrial beats and textures he became synonymous with. Lyrically, the album is a curious mix of introspection, protestation and romantic reflection. Opening track Devour sees Manson desperately cry out: “And I’ll love you / if you let me!”
The mood hasn’t lifted much by the time we reache Four Rusted Horses, where Manson’s self-pity gets the better of him: “Everyone will come to my funereal / to make sure that I stay dead.” More conventional Manson tracks like Arma-Goddamn-Mutherfuckin-Geddon, Pretty As A Swastika and We’re From America do lift the album out of its near-constant gloom, but they don’t elicit the kind of reaction that Manson’s classic singles once did.
To make matters worse, the album’s lumpy midsection leaves you trawling through a number of indistinguishable and often overlong filler tracks. The return of Twiggy Ramirez has given things greater musical depth, but its classic-rock pretensions never quite meld with Manson’s irritating, throaty croon.
The High End Of Low is an attempt to resuscitate the Marilyn Manson brand. Despite his best efforts, Manson must be aware that no matter what he tries to do, he can’t be anything other than a slightly tired, cartoonish parody of what he once was. While this isn’t a bad album – and Manson diehards are likely to enjoy it quite a bit – there’s the sense that it may be an unwanted one.
If there was a way to separate Brian Warner from the menacing masquerade of Manson, history would probably look more kindly at this phase of his musical career. Combining the allure of the mad magician, the mirth of the crazy clown and the suspense of the ghost train, Marilyn Manson has and always will be an all-in-one circus act for Generation X. Perhaps the time is right for this circus to move on.