When I started listening to music in 1999, Marilyn Manson was a punch line. I barely knew who he was, but I was aware that he was some freak that the (at the time) culture-wars-infected media made a point of labeling off limits for the American moms who took their parental cues from such sources. This was before the Information Age; you couldn’t just look up anything on the Internet back then. We had to take turns using a dial-up modem, which we couldn’t use for very long since it took up the use of the phone line — if someone called the house, they would hear a busy signal. Times have certainly changed. For one, there was always a schoolyard rumor, so to speak, that Marilyn Manson had some ribs removed so he could suck his own dick. I shit you not; this was an urban legend back then, and it was impossible to verify its accuracy back then — the Internet’s search potential just wasn’t in place yet. (There also was no Wikipedia until 2001, and even that took a few years to catch on. Wikipedia essentially filters through all the data on the Web and spits out a digestible narrative for its millions of articles — an unthinkable achievement in 1999.)
One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the ability to look at events, people, or issues from every conceivable angle. Somewhat ironically in our current age, most people are only willing to take in information from the angle they most prefer, allowing for their opinions to be validated repeatedly. This wasn’t an option in 1999. The news was the news, particularly when it came to TV; the major networks hogged all the ratings, so even cable news was at least interested in doing good reporting, even if there was some spin. At the same time, if you wanted to know whether or not Marilyn Manson actually resided in the 9th circle of Hell and spent his days chugging his own cock, you were out of luck. This is precisely what made the shock tactics — his hit 1996 album Antichrist Superstar was a deliberate poke at America’s religious right — Marilyn Manson employed throughout the ’90s so effective: with such limited access to what was truly behind the curtain, it actually did seem plausible — especially given how freaky the guy looked — that he could have fellating himself.
Over the years, I never listened to Marilyn Manson. I would occasionally hear his alt-rock radio classic “The Beautiful People” or his surreal cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” but I never listened to any of his albums before sitting down and giving his 2015 album The Pale Emperor a try. I had seen Marilyn Manson on the final season of the FX show Sons of Anarchy in the fall of 2014 and couldn’t believe how normal — relatively speaking — he looked compared to the over the top image from long ago he conjured in my mind’s eye. For one, he was normally proportioned instead of absurdly skinny, and his Caucasian skin was a normal shade of pale instead of milky white. (He was playing a neo-Nazi prisoner covered with offensive tattoos, though, so he still managed to look bizarre.) Still, the fact that he was surfacing in a somewhat altered state than he was when he was in the zeitgeist made me reconsider whether I should take his music seriously or not.
When I saw that The Pale Emperor was making some of the critics’ year-end lists (including Rolling Stone‘s) as 2015 began to finally run its course, I finally gave it a listen, and I’m glad I did. For one, it’s remarkably restrained. Everything about the Marilyn Manson that captured the masses’ attention was over the top; he’s managed to alter his attack considerably here two decades later. I went back and gave Antichrist Superstar a cursory listen and found it to be a bit assaulting — and a lesser form of the industrial metal Trent Reznor had given shape to and popularized with Nine Inch Nails. (Manson was signed to Reznor’s own Nothing imprint at Interscope Records and was considered his protégé for a time — he was even a producer on Antichrist Superstar — though the two would later famously feud.) In fact, listening to it drove home just how far removed we are now from the nü metal era that I unfortunately grew up in. (Broadly speaking, hard rock in the ’90s alternative mainstream progressed from grunge (’91 to ’93) to industrial metal (’94 to ’96) to nü metal (’97 to ’99).)
After all, two decades is a long, long time — an eternity in popular music. Antichrist Superstar may have sold upwards of 7 million copies back in the mid- and late-’90s, but that was a generation ago and several subsequent waves of pop had crashed ashore only to be sucked back to sea each time the masses moved on to whatever was next. After four straight tepidly received releases following 2000‘s well-reviewed Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), Manson turned to film score composer Tyler Bates to collaborate with on The Pale Emperor. Bates is best known for scoring all of Zack Snyder’s films, and his name first came to my attention when I watched Snyder’s 2007 movie 300. I thought the movie was pretty stupid and got old pretty quickly, and I couldn’t help but notice that Bates’ score utilized a guitar-heavy, industrial sound that was absolutely out of place for most movies. (Then again, I suppose 300 was so stylized it fit.)
The way the credits break down, Bates handled the music, while Manson handled the lyrics. I haven’t delved deep enough into Manson’s career to know whether this is the typical setup or not, but letting someone else shape the music has really produced some pretty wondrous results. Some songs, like the twin highlights “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles,” are downright bluesy. And while the production can get dense at times, the key to the album’s success is that it never overwhelms — in any respect. Sure, it’s dark and sometimes noisy, but it always feels entirely comfortable. In fact, there’s no intention of shock — literally none at all. I sometimes forget that I’m listening to a Marilyn Manson album, since there are no offending or otherwise untoward sensibilities here, even when he plumbs subjects involving Greek mythology and other weird morbid themes. Either way, this is 2015 and there’s no one left to shock at this point, so the leap in maturity and emphasis on craft is certainly admirable. It’s one of the sneakier surprises of 2015, and quite a strong record overall.