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Marilyn Manson, ‘Born Villain’ (Hell, Etc./Cooking Vinyl)

Marilyn Manson
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: May 01, 2012
Label: Hell Etc./Cooking Vinyl

Has the time come for a critical reassessment of Marilyn Manson? Marilyn Manson sure seems to think so. The veteran shock-rocker’s new studio album — his first since the end of a decade-and-a-half Interscope deal that he told Billboard involved “trying to fit me into a hole I didn’t belong in” — arrives pre-equipped with all kinds of comeback paraphernalia, including confessional interviews and a genuinely disturbing short film directed by Shia LaBeouf (who, incidentally, has also helmed music videos for Kid Cudi and Cage).

As for the songs themselves, on Born Villain‘s crunching lead single, “No Reflection,” Manson snarls, “I’m not a death-trip vacation,” then adds, “You don’t even want to know what I’m gonna do to you.” Bogeyman boilerplate? To an extent, sure, though he quickly reverts to fright-night form on the title track, admitting, “There is a taste for blood / And it’s something deep inside.”

Yet the implication seems to be that, at 43, Manson is no longer interested in cheap thrills — that he’s evolved, if you will, from a comic-book phase into a graphic-novel period. On “Overneath the Path of Misery” he goes higher-brow still, heavy-breathing through a bit of Macbeth’s sound-and-fury soliloquy before arguing that “the rape of Persephone was choreographed by all the wrong Greeks.” (Come back, Dan Brown, all is forgiven.)

Professor Manson mirrors Born Villain‘s pseudo-brainy vibe with dry, brutal production that suggests latter-day Nine Inch Nails, or even LCD Soundsystem, more than it does the garish ’90s excess of Antichrist Superstar: With a minimal machine-funk beat and close-miked electric guitar, “Pistol Whipped,” in particular, feels like Manson’s shot at wooing the Coachella crowd. His vocals here, too, largely sidestep the goth-metal histrionics of yore in favor of a growly Sprechstimme put to most appropriate use in the ominously titled “Breaking the Same Old Ground,” which slows to a witch-house crawl and describes a very Leonard Cohen afterworld: “I am owned by death and I’m in love with oblivion.”

So, okay: Marilyn Manson has become a hipster. Problem is, it’s kind of a challenge to swallow this reinvention narrative, since he’s used it so often — as recently, in fact, as 2009, when his last album, The High End of Low, touted his reunion with longtime foil Twiggy Ramirez. “It’s not about something that’s cool or dark or heavy or noncommercial or anything against the mainstream,” he told me shortly before that record’s release. “That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just about people who want to enjoy life and who understand that the world’s fucked-up.” How many times can you claim a new album represents the repudiation of its misguided predecessor before your fans view any fresh work with suspicion?

And if Manson envisions himself as a serial re-inventor à la Madonna, then shouldn’t each successive iteration be — or at least attempt to be — livelier than the last? (God knows her new MDNA is no Music, but tunes like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Give Me All Your Luvin'” seem like failures of imagination, not effort.) However admirable its ambition-cum-restraint may appear, Born Villain is a bit of a drag, especially compared to the underrated High End of Low: too many slow songs, not enough hooks, a tune called “Lay Down Your Goddamn Arms” instead of one called “Arma-goddamn-motherfuckin-geddon.”

Stick around to the end, and you’re rewarded with a terrifically sleazy cover of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” — complete with guitar solo by Johnny Depp! In a way, though, even that seems like a misstep, since it only emphasizes what the rest of this weirdly tamped-down album lacks. A freelance freak no longer plugged into the corporate mainframe, Manson exudes a certain level of commitment, you’ve gotta give him that. But in his compulsion to remake his dope show yet again, he may have thrown out the dead baby with the bathwater.