It seems like forever since the crazed antics of Marilyn Manson graced the pages of FEARnet... but then again I always say that, because when he's in the news, he's usually saying, doing or showing something deliberately unsettling, leaving a kinda weird press vacuum in his wake. This time it really has been quite a wait, because the shock-rock provocateur had concealed the progress of his eighth studio album from the public eye for over a year, even hinting that the album would be his "comeback" project. We did get something promising (and by "promising," I mean "creepy as all hell") to tide us over when the adults-only music video for "Born Villain," the title track from that album, made its world premiere last September. Directed by Transformers star Shia LaBeouf, that elaborately shocking short seriously raised the freakout bar for Manson's latest musical creation, which has now been unleashed upon the world, along with a follow-up single and new video "No Reflection." Check out our review of the album after the jump, and check out the new clip while you're here!
Manson's previous record The High End of Low turned out to be a decent but not exactly groundbreaking release (check out the full review here), benefiting from the return of the band's original guitarist Jeordie White – aka Twiggy Ramirez – and the solid production of Chris Vrenna. Both White and Vrenna are also former members of Nine Inch Nails, and still have a finger on the pulse of industrial metal (which is still beating strong, no matter what so-called "experts" may tell you, nyah-nyah), but overall the album lacked much of the epic sweep and dark majesty of Manson classics like Antichrist Superstar or Mechanical Animals... though I'd still place it fairly close to another very strong entry, Holy Wood.
The same team came together for Born Villain, but now Vrenna, still producing, has also stepped in to replace Ginger Fish as drummer. Another critical difference is Manson's recent ousting from Interscope Records; he's released this album under his own new label, Hell Etc. (nice handle, that one), while whittling down the production to best capture the raw, refined essence of diabolical sleaze. (If you're concerned that I consider "diabolical sleaze" to be a good thing, then you're probably not the target audience for this record.) The result? Again, not quite an epic, but much more focused energy and savvy songwriting; in a way, both this and the previous album together represent a slow but steady move in the right direction.
One thing that struck me about Born Villain is the relatively trim production, which is kind of a surprise considering the artist's love of big-ass theatrics. Sure, there's plenty of the old bombastic fun – check out the opening cut "Hey, Cruel World," which begins somber and quickly spins into ultra-heaviness; "No Reflection," which fuses industrial rhythms onto eerie synth-rock; and the horny urgency and tribal pulse of "Disengaged." But many of these tracks are stripped down to skeletal form, placing more emphasis on pulsing beats and Manson's lyrical delivery, instead of hammering relentlessly with slabs of crusty drop-tuned riffage.
Born Villain is an album of shocking violence, but it's often revealed through the sharpness of the words themselves, not just their musical delivery... as demonstrated in tracks like the creepy "Pistol Whipped," an ode to either sexy violence or violent sex (probably both), and the raunchy, blues-flavored "Lay Down Your Goddamn Arms." Manson also gives some of the most powerful tracks plenty of time to live and breathe, from the quiet, lurking beast "The Gardener" (one of Manson's most effectively cinematic soundscapes) to rampaging monsters like "Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day." Even when the beat is more tightly controlled, it still feels deeply haunted – as you'll hear in "The Flowers of Evil" (based on the work by decadent poet Charles Baudelaire) and the intense "Children of Cain."
The closing cut "Breaking the Same Old Ground" may be a little bit more revealing of a title than intended... basically a gothed-up lullaby, to me the track sounds like what non-fans think Marilyn Manson is supposed to sound like, venturing on self-parody (which may be intentional; I'm not really sure). The Special Edition also features the campy bonus track "You're So Vain," a cover of the old Carly Simon tune; I'm not sure if this one was written as a delayed reverse slam on Trent Reznor, who used the same lyrics in the Nine Inch Nails track "Starfuckers, Inc," a song allegedly about Manson after the two had a parting of ways over a decade ago. I actually just pulled that theory out of my ass, but it's a pretty cool rendition anyway, and features strong guitar chops from none other than Johnny Depp. It's actually a pretty groovy bit, even beyond its obvious novelty value.
If Born Villain is yet another of Manson's many David Bowie-like reinventions, then I'd say this new musical antihero persona is one of his most intriguing; in recent years much of his dark vision has been turned inward, but with this release he's definitely refocused his evil eye on the rest of us. He's obviously still pissed off (that's his job, right?), but now that rage is more refined, the hate more eloquent, and the usual flamboyant presentation has been dialed back, resulting in an album that is truly provocative... in all the right ways.
Check out the vid for "No Reflection" right here!