I'm not sure why it seems like forever since Marilyn Manson’s last studio project... in reality, it's only been a couple of years since the dark-rock overlord emerged from self-imposed exile to release the highly personal Eat Me, Drink Me. But frankly, few but the truly devoted paid much attention to that one, and there have since been murmurings that glam’s dark prince had lost some of his macabre mojo. Now, while I can't confidently say that his demonic engine is back to firing on all cylinders, I have to admit it sounds like the erstwhile Brian Warner has managed to break free from whatever creative doldrums might have gripped him in the years since the end of his marriage to über-hottie Dita Von Teese (I gotta admit, that loss would've torqued me up too). I think just about anyone would agree that his new offering The High End of Low - which hits stores today – is a vast improvement over its 2007 predecessor, and although it's no Antichrist Superstar, it may actually surpass the excellent Holy Wood in its display of dark power, and may even hint at a return to classic form.
After something like half a year of merciless teasing, yours truly finally got to have a listen to this evil creation, and I'll break it all down for you on the other side. Jump on, super-creeps, if you want to know what our favorite moody metal-mouth has in store for you...
What helps The High End of Low most is that many of the key elements that solidified Manson epics like Antichrist or Mechanical Animals are back in place here. For example, we have the welcome return of Twiggy Ramirez (aka Jeordie White) to the fold after a nearly seven-year absence (during which White enjoyed lengthy and successful touring with Nine Inch Nails) and his signature playing style, particularly on the bass, is both evident and welcome. But another crucial ingredient in Manson's recipe is bitter, sardonic satire aimed squarely at the vagaries of modern American society, and Manson's dishing it up by the bucketful this time around, along with a surprising degree of introspective musing… and although I’d say we’re hearing a bit too much of the latter, there’s still a lot of exciting sounds to be found.
“Devour” opens the album with a simple, gritty ambient/acoustic intro, leading to what may be as close to a love song as you're gonna get from the Spooky One... in its own skewed universe, it could be construed as a metaphor for giving in to the all-consuming monster of love. But then again, Manson's agonized refrain of “I can’t sleep until I devour you” and “You’re not crying, this is blood all over me” indicate that we're likely dealing with a case of violent obsession. It’s a nice lead-in, but the catchy, super-heavy death glam of “Pretty as a Swastika” (the noun in that title is transposed with a dollar sign for a not-exactly-subtle association that is sure to raise some eyebrows) is full-on Antichrist awesome, punctuated by down-tuned, jabbing riffs.
“Leave a Scar” feels slightly semi-autobiographical in its Nietzschean approach to personal anguish (“Whatever doesn't kill you is gonna leave a scar”), something Manson has cited as one of the driving forces behind the album… but then again, doesn't he always say that? Sure, he's drawn from this well of bitterness before, but then again, the feelings are pretty universal here... and delivered with a cold, menacing beat that serves as one of the album's strongest sonic cores. It’s followed by the bluesy “Four Rusted Horses,” one of a few mellow tracks which feel strangely romantic in their own quirky way, but never far from the shadows; that same mood is expanded to cosmic levels with “Running to the Edge of the World,” an evocative acoustic guitar-based ballad which owes more than a little to Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
“Arma-Goddamn-Motherfuckin'-Geddon” (I enjoyed adding this song title to my spell-checker's dictionary) is the album's latest single... and although the title (and dozens of embedded F-bombs) wouldn't seem to lend itself to popular rotation, it was actually a savvy choice, because it represents everything solid, straightforward and powerful about the MM sound. With Twiggy's dirty bass line driving the wagon (and very “White Wedding” lead guitar sound on top), this track will remind you how Manson can, in his best moments, position a wicked, leering glam-sleaze performance atop an oily, primal beat to create a brutally seductive monster that can rip off your down-there parts.
Apparently the sprawling nine-minute epic “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies” will soon serve as the basis of a long-form video that Manson has described as “sadistic”… and after finally hearing this one, it seems like a natural fit, although I'm pretty damn curious about what Manson's got in store for the visual component. Expansive and cinematic in the extreme, with eerie sound effects and superb driving bass-work from Twiggy, the song feels like a vast psychedelic playground, dipping occasionally into indulgently lengthy repetition and truly savage vocals.
After this ambitious but exhausting effort, the album stumbles a bit through a sluggish midsection: “WOW” is an electro-infused piece that starts off sounding like a dead ringer for Nine Inch Nails’ “Only,” but suffers from a fairly lethargic pace and too much synth noodling from Vrenna; the throbbing, grungy “Wight Spider” lacks the dynamics to sustain much interest; and “Unkillable Monster” presents another journey though personal pain, rendered slightly hollow by a trudging delivery, at least until the final section. Together with sixth cut “Blank and White,” I’d consider these the least rip-worthy tracks of the bunch.
Thankfully the wicked energy kicks back in with industrial hate-anthem “We're From America” (the first single), whose lyrics represent Manson at his sacred cow-killing best, slashing mercilessly – but with surgical precision – at his favorite targets, namely sanctimonious hypocrites (“We don’t believe in credibility, because we know that we’re fucking incredible”) and Twiggy’s throbbing, overdriven bass is dead-on. The anguished wails of “I Have to Look Up Just to See Hell” slide out of anger into a despairing acceptance of cruel fate – a powerful moment of moody introspection filtered through Manson’s cynical gaze.
In an unusual turn, the grandiose presentation of “Into the Fire” – featuring warm string accompaniment, gentle solo piano by Ginger Fish, and some of Twiggy's most sublime lead guitar work – puts the piece on par with Manson epics like “Coma White.” It would have served as a far more fitting coda to the album than the closing track “15,” which Manson describes as a kind of fate-driven exercise with numerological significance (his birthday is on January 5th), and claims it’s the most unusual song he’s ever done… sure, it’s a creepy little number, but it's not quite as climactic in the execution as I'd hoped.
Despite the overall feeling of a creative reboot on Manson's part, I think it's safe to say he hasn't thrown out the stuff that works; if anything, he's sharpened a few of the lyrical knives in his toolkit. Add to that the return of Twiggy, as well as Vrenna's electronic contributions and Ginger Fish on drums, and you get a hefty, muscular frame that lends extra heft to Manson's demonic delivery, in ways I haven't heard in many years.
I'd kinda backed off a bit after Golden Age of Grotesque, and Eat Me nearly drove me away for good – not because either one was particularly bad as an album, but because I was beginning to detect that encroaching feeling of irrelevance, and the sense that he was ditching too many of his unique musical strengths. With The High End of Low, the sound that you've come to expect actually feels unique again, and functions on more levels than simple shock value (although there's plenty of that). I feel like Manson's drawing enough from the past to stay true to his style, but adding enough new tricks to hang onto relevance... at least for now. Whether or not that's going to happen, it's enough to get your attention again.