2019 Music Essays

Fated, Faithful, Fatal: Ranking and Reviewing 25 years of Marilyn Manson

Twenty-five years ago, Marilyn Manson released his debut album Portrait of an American Family. Ten albums and multiple band changes later, his catalogue presents an extensive, medium-crossing statement on a culture he both reviles and embodies. Manson’s oeuvre offers a messy, self-contradicting story, bound up in its creator’s narcissism and his uniquely Ouroboros-like relationship to the popular American landscape. Of course, his self-given name (Marilyn Monroe meets Charles Manson) explicates the cannibalistic nature of celebrity worship while also provocatively connecting disparate icons — this, after all, is the singer-songwriter’s primary M.O. Manson is first and foremost an ego-driven artist, but I want to push against the pejorative implications of this term — what I mean to say is that he’s constantly and obsessively self-evaluative, intensely image-focused and aware of his paradoxical role in both embracing and attacking celebrity. He has developed a distinctive persona of carefully curated pastiche — there is no Manson without Andy Warhol, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Bauhaus, Ministry, Killing Joke, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Venom or Slayer. However, as I hope to show with this retrospective ranking and analysis, he’s not simply interested in the art of digesting and regurgitating — Manson offers a unique perspective that continues to evolve, sometimes alienating and sometimes zeitgeist-sensitive, but never less than intriguing. Aiming to briefly situate his studio albums within their cultural and career-specific contexts, I have ranked and reviewed all 10 below, beginning with my least favorite.

10. The High End of Low (2009)

The four albums released after Marilyn Manson’s scrappy 1994 debut Portrait of an American Family showcase plenty of aesthetic variation, but they’re connected by their creator’s hyper-focused political and aesthetic sense of direction. By contrast, The High End of Low finds Manson in a creatively interstitial and restless space. Released two years after the misunderstood, vampiric confessional Eat Me, Drink Me (2007), The High End of Low builds off its predecessor’s interiority but sheds all traces of its romanticism. The result is an uncomfortable expression of cognitive pathology, spitting and spiteful and lost in a vortex of embittered ideas. At its worst, the record settles for vague and meaningless provocation (“Pretty as a Swastika”), and at its best, it signals the singer-songwriter’s most vivid cinematic impulses: “Devour,” “Unkillable Monster” and especially the epic “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies” are sinister hate-love songs that could have been penned by a sadistic giallo killer in an unusually reflective mood. The album draws sparingly from Manson’s preceding discography; most noticeably, the synth-stomping “Arma-goddamn-motherfuckin-geddon” sounds like it could have been discarded from a Golden Age of Grotesque recording session. Mostly, though, the album sees its apparently troubled creator searching for new means of expression. Manson has always been a chaotic artist motivated by dissonant concepts and modes, but unlike his more consistently satisfying records, The High End of Low never finds a center of gravity. For both better and worse, it is the musical equivalent of a smashed mirror.

9. Born Villain (2012)

Born Villain sees Manson emerging from the maelstrom that is The High End of Low (2009) and moving one step closer to the mythological heft that undergirds his late-career masterpiece, The Pale Emperor (2015). While Born Villain lacks The Pale Emperor’s rich atmosphere and conceptual synthesis, it finds the singer-songwriter addressing the concept of natural evil through interesting extratextual references. Most notably, “Overneath the Path of Misery” loosely connects William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with figures from Greek mythology (Oedipus and Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter); also worth mentioning is “The Flowers of Evil,” which borrows its title from French poet Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 collection of the same name. However, unlike many of Manson’s more inspired albums, Born Villain never quite settles its frames of reference into a cohesive record-wide vision. Here, Manson’s referentiality generally fades into the background, and his most potent ideas end up stemming from more contemporary observations about celebrity fetishism and vindicated psychopathology — look no further than “Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day” and the Quaalude-hypnotic club jam “Slo-Mo-Tion,” which features the album’s most frankly telling line: “I hate you all, but somehow you find me / Incredibly charming.” Unlike its 2009 predecessor, Born Villain is musically streamlined and coherent, driven by minimal, dirty industrial arrangements and production. It seems to find Manson reflecting on his existing catalogue and persona, in a process of simplifying and regrouping. While it never achieves greatness, it’s a consistently intriguing misfire that lays the foundation for Manson’s next two records.

8. Portrait of an American Family (1994)

Released only three months after the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Portrait of an American Family sets the stage for the most disruptive and game-changing act in mid-90s mainstream American rock music. Produced by Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor, the record boasts a sample-heavy hardcore sound located somewhere in the uncharted territory between punk rock and metal. There’s an audible Nails influence, not to mention a significant imprint from the late-80s Chicago industrial scene (Ministry, KMFDM, Revolting Cocks et al.), but Portrait of an American Family’s imagery and subject matter set it apart. The record’s grating prelude features Manson reciting a passage from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), reframing the fantasy voyage of Dahl’s book as a trip down the lake of fire into hell. This intro transitions into the evilly infectious opener “Cake and Sodomy,” in which Manson pronounces himself “the God of Fuck.” This line explicitly summarizes Manson’s career-long obsession with the overlaps between worship, sex and violence: such is the album’s modus operandi, outlining the singer-songwriter’s pervading interest in blasphemy, Christianity and the process of both remixing and defiling sacred cultural symbols (from works of children’s fiction to right-wing religious iconography). With this ragged debut, Manson positions himself as the product of an archetypal midwestern American family whose false and inconsistent values mask monstrous, unspoken national truths. These 13 tracks are rife with fairy tale iconography and sing-song nursery rhyme lyrics, defamiliarized and poisoned by references to abuse, deception and angst. Portrait of an American Family’s overarching tone is one of reckless adolescent rage, vomiting remnants of force-fed Christian dogma through musical rebellion.

7. The Golden Age of Grotesque (2003)

The Golden Age of Grotesque maps early-aughts pop-industrial onto the iconography of Germany’s “Golden Twenties” explosion (lifting specifically from expressionist cinema, Dadaist painting, the archetype-driven theories of C.G. Jung, cabaret and erotic theatre). Expanding on his previous albums’ emphases on stylized self-representation, the singer-songwriter uses The Golden Age of Grotesque to further explore the fuzzy boundary between persona and output: “I’m not an artist / I’m a fucking work of art,” he sings on “(s)AINT.” The record advances its art/self concerns by way of bigger archetypal symbolism, depicting the intrinsic correspondences between national identification/propaganda and artistic representation. This conceptual frame depicts Manson as the antihero symbol of American values via rock-stardom and celebrity, bringing a newly vaudevillian (or “Vodevil”-ian) quality to his violent provocations (see “Use Your Fist and Not Your Mouth” and “This Is the New Shit”). The album bristles with burlesque electro-metal energy, committed to broad strokes and visceral affect. It sees Manson developing sonic expression of visual concepts, corresponding with his debut art exhibition of the same name: it’s an aggressive, hyper-sexualized portrait of rock-star as national supervillain, represented by the ironic mantra of “mOBSCENE” — “Be obscene and not heard.” Of course, Manson’s aesthetic approach gestures to the uprising of the Nazi party and its fascistic opposition to anti-nationalist art. Released two years into George W. Bush’s far-right administration (infamous for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay Detention camp, among countless other atrocities), The Golden Age of Grotesque uses hyperbolic analogue to warn that oppressive political structures often benefit from squashing renegade popular art. This is not to suggest that The Golden Age of Grotesque is a coherent “message” record (Manson always opts for disharmony over didacticism), but its specific sociopolitical framework encourages scrutiny.

6. Eat Me, Drink Me (2007) 

Eat Me, Drink Me’s Eucharistic title says less about Marilyn Manson’s typically sacrilegious penchants than it does about vampiric romanticism. Specifically, the record concerns itself with the 19th century Romantic tradition, connecting the Byronic hero figure with western literature’s most famous vampire novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Manson uses these references to bolster his most intimate and personal album, explicitly addressing his then-recent divorce from model Dita Von Teese and subsequent relationship with actress Evan Rachel Wood. The album’s lyrical content is perhaps overwrought, but Manson chooses wisely by situating his hopelessly destructive persona within longstanding literary traditions. The album’s Gothic Romanticism offers context for all its emotional and descriptive histrionics — when Manson sings lines like, “We built this tomb together, I won’t fill it alone” (“If I Was Your Vampire”) or “We’ll paint the future black if it needs a color” (“Putting Holes in Happiness”), he sides with literary archetypes as much as he lays bare his own feelings. While the singer-songwriter cites Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure (1973), David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) as Eat Me, Drink Me’s primary influences, the record’s lyrical tone aligns more closely with some of his post-punk icons (especially Joy Division, The Cure and Bauhaus). Musically, though, the reference points of Bowie, Prince and Roxy Music make sense — the album is characterized by a room-filling and cathartic sound, replete with emotional guitar solos and moody synthesizer flourishes. To date, it stands out as Manson’s most emotional record, almost entirely side-stepping his knack for referential distancing and ironic persona games.

5. Heaven Upside Down (2017)

Is there any room left for Marilyn Manson in a post-Yeezus (2013), post-Born This Way (2011) world? Rebellious, guitar-driven commercial music has long since disappeared, but it takes little effort to hear Manson’s impact on current boundary-pushing popular artists. Manson certainly inherited his unique brand of shock theatrics from the likes of Madonna, Alice Cooper, Prince and David Bowie, and now Lady Gaga has recontextualized his ideas for 21st century pop; further, the breathless industrial-swing of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” owes as much to Manson’s “The Beautiful People” as it does to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll”; more recently, rapper Lil Uzi Vert has cited Manson as one of his biggest influences. With Heaven Upside Down, Manson embraces his presence in contemporary popular culture, adorning his aging vampire persona with fluorishes from trap music (see “SAY10” and “Tattooed in Reverse”) and Charli XCX-esque electropop (“KILL4ME”). With all its references to cocaine, guns and incitements to violence, Heaven Upside Down never feels dangerous as much as it feels self-reflective. It navigates widely varying musical terrain to the consistent tune of violent desperation — Manson, stating outright that he writes “songs to fight and to fuck to,” finds himself sifting through the fragmented ephemerality of his current milieu, in which art-motivated shock has been flattened by the horrors of a post-truth, post-self-identity world facing catastrophe via accelerating climate change, rampant zombie capitalism, technology-induced anxiety, Nazi uprisings and waves of far-right populism. Taking cues from the guitar-wailing cadences of The Cure’s “The Kiss,” the sprawling mid-album track “Saturnalia” finds Manson confronting our near-future apocalypse with some of the most despairing song-writing in his career; consider the lines, “There’s no exit planet / No emergency room in this tomb / And its door only opens one way.” With Heaven Upside Down, Manson offers aggressive Dionysian songs in the face of destruction — if nothing else, the record’s here simply to remind us that its maker is “a legend, not a fable” (“SAY10”).

4. Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) (2000)

Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) sees Manson investigating national mid-to late-20th century focuses on celebrity, violence and the sacred. With a title describing correlations between fame and worship, the record focuses on three major martyr figures that informed the singer-songwriter’s coming-of-age: president John F. Kennedy, John Lennon and Jesus Christ. In “The Love Song,” Manson uses these three figures to signify colonial America’s “holy trinity”: guns, God and government. He orients Holy Wood in this specific historical context to combat media accusations holding him accountable to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. That is, Manson details his own upbringing’s cultural signposts to remind colonial America that its narratives are founded on the celebration of firearms, domination and martyr monomania. Fearing lethal repercussions for his position as cultural scapegoat, Manson identifies with Lennon, who was assassinated in 1980 by mentally ill fan Mark David Chapman. In fact, with “Lamb of God,” Manson goes so far as to lift and slightly modify the refrain from one of The Beatles’ most famous Lennon-penned songs, “Across the Universe” — “Nothing’s going to change my world,” sings Lennon; “Nothing’s going to change the world,” sings Manson. Needless to say, Manson’s self-given surname gestures also to the horrible, incidental connection between The Beatles’ White Album (1969) and the Charles Manson Family’s 1969 “Helter Skelter” murder of Sharon Tate and others. Holy Wood is a surprisingly moralistic album that diagnoses national hypocrisies while situating Manson as a literate, politically self-aware figure in 21st century pop culture.

3. Mechanical Animals (1998)

Mechanical Animals presents a counterpoint to its confident, quasi-Nietzschean predecessor, Antichrist Superstar (1996): where the former sees Manson “rising” as the alpha figurehead of 90s shock rock, the latter conveys an artist retreating inward. A shimmering glam-pop portrait of decadence, depression and addiction, this record concerns itself with synthetic drugs and the erasing of the self. As such, it quite deliberately offsets Antichrist Superstar’s vitriolic self-aggrandizement to instead emphasize mental illness and medication as the consequences of American celebrity culture and its incumbent empty promises. Manson attributes the record’s bleak outlook to alienating late-90s futurism, with a persisting (and pessimistic) emphasis on posthumanism; indeed, the album summarizes its downbeat and specifically futuristic vision with its opening track, “Great Big White World,” with Manson singing, “It’s a great big white world / And we are drained of our colors / We used to love ourselves / We used to love one another / All my stitches itch / My prescription’s low.” Using prescription and recreational drugs as his primary metaphorical vehicles, Manson conveys a world wherein the self has been detached from the body and the concept of human exceptionalism is a ruse (consider “Mechanical Animals,” “Posthuman,” “I Want to Disappear,” “New Model No. 15” and “User Friendly”). The record’s angst-ridden anti-humanism aligns well with Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible (1969), which asserts that man, “because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all.”

2. The Pale Emperor (2015)

Following two consecutive albums somewhat lacking in focus and cohesion, Marilyn Manson teams with producer-composer Tyler Bates to explore his own persona’s cultural and mythological origins. Bates, responsible for composing the haunting soundscapes of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), provides a suitably cinematic backdrop for Manson’s late-career self-evaluation. The Pale Emperor interprets Manson’s career and cultural presence through the German legend of Faust, presenting the singer-songwriter both as Faust himself (selling his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasure and knowledge) and as the “Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” (ascending to the rank of Satan’s collector, prowling the soulless environs of his contemporary world to gather the souls of the damned). The album boasts a disciplined, stripped-down sound drawing from blues and early rock ‘n’ roll while also offering spacious, moody hellscapes befitting the production of its horror film score composer. “Slave Only Dreams to Be King,” one of Manson’s thematically densest tracks, begins with an excerpt from James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh (1903), a turn-of-the-century self-help treatise that provides the foundation for many of the ideas in Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible. This track sees Manson justifying his own “Faustian bargain,” arguing that profane pleasure and knowledge trumps the closed-minded pursuit of success within a rigged system. This serves as one moment among many in which The Pale Emperor matches its sophisticated production by actively engaging with religious and philosophical texts. Manson elevates tracks like “The Devil Beneath My Feet,” an up-tempo ode to Satanist self-actualization, by referencing and responding directly to the New Testament; “it’s better to be blamed for robbing Peter than guilty for paying Paul,” he sings, reaffirming his anti-dogma convictions. With all its synth-blues swagger and thematic grandiosity, The Pale Emperor is a wholly realized album, constructing a carefully designed narrative and atmosphere from beginning to end.

1. Antichrist Superstar (1996)

Antichrist Superstar is Marilyn Manson’s most completely distilled artistic statement. It presents a reflexive exercise in pop-propaganda that depicts the blasphemous singer-songwriter as a generational spokesman, the militant opponent to all things dogmatic. Its title plays both on the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (1895), specifically targeting Christianity for its reliance on worship (acquiescence) and what Nietzsche perceives as the exploitation of the weak. Manson presents himself thus as some form of Nietzschean Übermensch (or “Superman”), evolving from his lowly origins as a “wormboy” to become a Hydra — any attempts to weaken or “behead” him will only result in his intensified strength. If the record’s interpretations of Nietzsche are simplistic or reductive or even misguided, it is ultimately to the benefit of a blunt-force shock rock agenda. Its overarching philosophy is bluntly persuasive: it presents Schopenhauer-esque, pessimistic determinism through diagnosis of the principles and structures undergirding contemporary western society, but it also presents affirmation in the pseudo-Nietzschean, Satanist Über-Hydra that is the Antichrist Superstar. It doesn’t really matter if the conclusion is less “convincing” than the premises; Manson employs references not to structure an “argument,” but to construct a wholly persuasive work of art that speaks through affect. The religious and philosophical ideas are merely background to the music: a forceful and misanthropic dirge of late-90s fury.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, podcasts and anthologies, including Dark Moon Digest and The NoSleep Podcast, and his film criticism has been published in MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage and The Seventh Row. He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.