Marilyn Manson writes songs that he fights and fucks to—or at least that’s what he’d like us to believe. With all the subtlety of a high school sophomore scrawling naughty words on the inside of his notebook, Manson literally tells us so on “JE$U$ CRI$IS,” a song from his tenth album Heaven Upside Down. He continues, taunting in that familiar nursery rhyme-esque cadence: “If you wanna fight, then I’ll fight you. / If you wanna fuck, I will fuck you. / Make up your mind or I’ll make it up for you.”
If you were actually within earshot, it’d be difficult to resist the impulse to turn and say “Whatever, we heard you the first time.” Not only do we know that Manson is observant enough to say something useful about the moment we’re living through, but he’s grown into a rather proficient tunesmith, thanks in no small part to guitarist/producer Tyler Bates. Still, Manson’s style hasn’t evolved all that much: If Heaven Upside Down had come out around 1999 or so, it would have fit right in alongside releases by Orgy, Filter, and Rob Zombie. Bates and Manson draw from the same brew of metal, goth, glam, industrial, electro, dance, and white-guy funk rock that we’ve come to expect.
The difference this time—and the reason why this album would have stood out amongst the competition back then—is that Bates and Manson create a seamless alloy that’s stuffed with memorable hooks. Bates, who made his name composing scores for horror films and video games, came aboard the Manson train in time for 2015’s The Pale Emperor. Like with that album, Bates constructs a huge, arena-ready sound out of surprisingly economical arrangements, but Heaven Upside Down veers away from The Pale Emperor’s synths and downtempo stoicism in favor of buzzsaw guitars.
Remarkably, Bates captures outsized bombast while infusing the music with a genuine energy that verges on punk. Manson’s music hasn’t sounded this alive in years, which makes it so disappointing that he squanders a golden opportunity. In the ‘90s, for better or worse, Manson struck a nerve, sending currents of fear rippling past America’s calm suburban facade. Even then, though, his brand of provocation had the net effect of showing up to your local Hot Topic in a trench coat and pancake makeup at midday on a Tuesday and flashing the grandmothers and soccer moms.
For listeners who felt choked by the oppressive genericism and religiosity of mainstream American culture, perhaps that was liberating. But twenty-plus years later Manson sounds increasingly out of touch and desperate to preserve a persona that he and his audience should have outgrown a long time ago. Towards the end of “JE$U$ CRI$IS,” Manson starts chanting “FIGHT!… FUCK!…” in a gang-vocal style that’s tailor made for crowds to shout along while mindlessly pumping their fists in the air. Six days before the album’s release, Manson was forced to postpone dates after a stage prop fell on him at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. A fan in the balcony was streaming on Facebook Live when it happened. “Oh my god, Manson just killed himself!” the fan says in disbelief. Right away, though, the fan just starts screaming the words to the chorus to the song that just ended.
It’s a rich irony, apparently lost on Manson himself, that he regards himself as a paragon of anti-establishment ideals when he panders so flagrantly to the herd instinct in crowds. For all the supposed non-conformism that drives Manson’s muse, he has a tendency to express himself in cheap-shot sloganeering that’s the musical equivalent of political demagoguery. “JE$U$ CRI$I$” ends with the Manson rhyming ISIS with “crisis.” His point, if there is one, is totally lost, but you can bet that fans will relish the sensation of pairing the words “ISIS,” “Jesus,” and “fuck”. Toddlers, when they learn that cursing gets a rise out of adults nearby, basically do the same thing.
Manson never got the memo, and at certain points, his unrestrained hostility rings more hollow than when Fred Durst farted out clouds of rage with Limp Bizkit. Both “WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE” and “KILL4ME” openly toy with the suggestion that Manson is inciting his listeners to some kind of action. Of course, he doesn’t mean it literally, but it doesn’t make it any less reprehensible. You wonder how much Manson will come to regret singing “It’s time to just kill this crowd / and scream as fucking loud / FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE AWAY”—and whether he might come to view those words differently when he resumes performing in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.
With his numerous acting roles, most recently in shows like Sons of Anarchy and Salem, as well as the feature-film thriller Let’s Make You a Martyr, Manson proved that he can inhabit other characters convincingly enough. In his own music, though, he resorts over and over to playing himself, even though Bates gives him a range of moods to work with. On the eerie, piano-based “Blood Honey,” basically 2017’s answer to a power ballad, Manson appears to get reflective until you lean in close enough to hear him sing “I’m not being mean / I’m just being me” and, most amusingly, “My nose is like a beehive / I’m drinking blood honey / I’m dripping blood, honey.”
The song’s vampire imagery is about as heavy-handed as it gets, especially since Manson’s picture on the album cover looks like a cross between Annie Lennox and Nosferatu. After all this time, Manson still sees himself as some kind of netherworld creature. That may be amusing to look at onstage, but it gives the audience nothing to relate to. Even when he comes close to opening up—“I’ve got some feelings / but I try to hide / when I’m healing. / I fuck every broken-crazy girl / instead of hanging from the ceiling.”—Manson can’t help but remind us of his access to excess.
One of the critical errors Manson made early on was not taking a cue from his mentor Trent Reznor, who never centered his art around mythologizing his rock-star status. These days, Manson wallowing in his self-conscious troublemaker image just seems reckless, especially when he drops bombs with language that detonates with a large bang but has no clear target or meaning. And in an age where everyone can take Manson’s provocateur ethic and cultivate their own outrageous personae online, wreaking havoc on our social fabric one YouTube post at a time, it no longer looks brave of him to stick to his original playbook. At this point, in spite of the vitality he re-connects with on Heaven Upside Down, he would be more compelling as a podcast host.