Album Review: Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor

Well, this was unexpected.

??After a decade-long span of creative misfires (from 2003's Golden Age of Grotesque and seemingly getting worse and worse until 2012's Born Villain) that saw Marilyn Manson struggling to maintain the universally-bestowed mantle of brilliant chronicler of Gen-X and subsequent generations' love/hate/addictive relationship with television and celebrity from within the entertainment industry, even Manson's most die-hard fans couldn't see their man keeping the kind-of of cultural relevance he had enjoyed in his heyday.??

A lot of this was simply because Marilyn Manson has always been more of an art project than a band concerned with making music for music's sake.

Not only was the concept of Marilyn Manson fleshed out as a stage show before a single song was written, all of Manson's "classic" albums (Anti Christ Superstar through Holy Wood) were inherently flawed as pieces of music.

In other words, it wasn't hard to tell which songs were going to be the singles.??

To compound this problem, people roughly your reviewer's age (24) who are too young to be considered the target audience of Manson's reign in pop prominence, but still remember the MTV catalyst that sparked Manson's art and pantheon of America's last true ubiquitous pop stars (Britney Spears, N Sync, etc.). Those who actually enjoyed Marilyn Manson as the music of their youth are in their 40s now.

The rest of us - the ones who discovered Manson in our late middle school years - regard Manson as not so much as a 'guilty pleasure,' but an embarrassing relic of juvenilia.

With a project that concerned itself so much with social commentary, the difference between discovering Marilyn Manson in, say, 1998, as a 16-25 year-old reasonably educated and informed member of society with views on politics, sexuality and plight, and discovering him between 2001-2003 as an 11-13-year-old in the infancy of finding one's musical identity is drastic.

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In fact, if one studies Manson's music, there seems to be a stark "era" marker. The first generation of Manson fans understood the higher artistic principle of his work encompassed in the aforementioned "classic" albums. After the release of 2001's Holy Wood, Manson's work was marked more by the man than the issues and politics surrounding him. Anti-Christ Superstar explored the relationship of fascism and religion, Mechanical Animals took on drugs, celebrity and isolation and Holy Wood was a high-minded, almost literary, take on the media's fascination of violence.

But, by the time of The Golden Age of Grotesque, Marilyn Manson went on a serious vaudeville bend, and the two proceeding albums were about his failed romances. Hence, post-classic Manson was more about individual identity and was propelled by brilliant marketing.

Being a Marilyn Manson fan in this era meant being against everything else.

No where is this more clear than in Manson's video for "Tainted Love," which depicts him as a leader of a gang of "goth gangsters" in true-early 00's music video gusto.

It's hard to peg Manson himself for anything other than misinterpreted satire, but the video became a call to arms for an attitude distinctive of young teens who have just discovered "alternative" music and pride themselves on the fact that under no circumstances would they be sold pre-packaged consumeristic pop music.

??Then what happened? Those of us who discovered Manson during this second period quite simply moved on. As the first generation to have our musical tastes curated by the internet and not radio/television, and with a native inclination towards musical elitism, we drifted to more obscure acts that we felt more comfortable identify as "our" bands.

Whether it was Darkthrone or Minor Threat, the true "underground" bands gave us some of the same exclusive feelings that we once associated with being Manson fans and we came to understand Marilyn Manson as he really was: pre-packaged consumeristic pop music.

We treated him with the ironic deadpan humor so representative of our generation: "Yeah mom, I liked Marilyn Manson when I was, like, 12." This isn't a personal reflection on the part of your reviewer, but fact that can be backed up by hard data.

At the beginning of this period, Manson was selling out amphitheaters as one of the headliners on the Ozzfest festival, a couple of years into it, he was playing to mid-capacity nightclubs.

??If any of these feelings are identifiable, your reviewer encourages at least one spin of The Pale Emperor with an open mind. You might be surprised. Manson hasn't undergone any drastic genre shifts or anything.

Much has been made about The Pale Emperor being a blues album; it's not. It's more of a ragged pop album.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Manson claimed that most of the vocals were done in one take. It shows, but in the best way possible.

??Another characteristic worthy of note is that The Pale Emperor still exhibits the same faults of Manson's "classic" period. The singles are recognizable and far and away the best tracks, but it's also a good deal briefer than those albums.

Of the pre-release singles, "Third Day of a Seven Day Binge" is the stand-out. With its refrain comprised of humming and its jangly acoustic arrangement, it's a true toe-tapper in the most basic sense of the word.

??For someone who, as of late, has been panned for "losing" his voice (let's be honest, Manson never really had a great one to begin with), the sincerity with which these vocal takes were done is impressive. "Worship My Wreck" concludes with a purely vocal crescendo that's uncharacteristic of an untrained singer.

Yes, it *is* just yelling, but it meshes with the song perfectly.

"Slave Only Dreams to Be King" displays the same kind of vocal dynamism and sounds like a cross between White Zombie and the "swing" feel of Manson's most-recognizable single, "The Beautiful People."??

Despite a brief bout of cringe-worthy lyricism ("Don't know if I can open up/I'm not a birthday present"), "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" is one of The Pale Emperor's best tracks, recalling the breezy glam-rock of Mechanical Animals and with its catchy-as-hell chorus, shows that Manson was born to be playing to arena-sized audiences.??

Even the tacked-on bonus acoustic tracks are pretty good. They show more-stripped-down versions of songs that are already relatively stripped-down, but are nonetheless indicative of how well these songs work on a purely musical level.

??With The Pale Emperor, the king of "shock rock" proves that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. No one was expecting fucking Marilyn Manson to release the first truly great album of 2015, but he certainly has.

Hopefully, we're old enough now to shake the elitist shame of being a Marilyn Manson fan. He has earned us back.