Let’s face it, Marilyn Manson would probably be pretty pretentious if his music wasn’t so gosh-darned populist. He’d probably be really transgressive, too, if using transgressive pop music to piss off mom and pop didn’t seem so awfully old fashioned these days. Indeed, while Manson is clearly very articulate and intelligent, his whole aesthetic has always seemed all too carefully styled for maximum media attention. But, then again, if it looks and sounds good, so what? His now infamous ghoulish, androgynous, look is borrowed from bits and bobs of nightmares and New York club kids, coloured in with the make-up kit of Norwegian black metal bands. And he ties that look with a correspondingly abrasive sound, influenced equally by stomping 1970s glam rock and doom-laden industrial music. So even though he’s always managed to express his musical and artistic aims rather well, maybe it just doesn’t really cut it anymore, musically or artistically.
But the medium is the message; so does that mean that Manson has been doubly guilty of selling himself short? Do we not have to ask whether he is still, after 15 years in the public eye, trying to define himself in opposition to an unreflective and conformist status quo to which he himself contributes? If this is the case, and if he knows better (and we all suspect that he does), then why does he continue to make the same old angry, raucous teen scene pop music?
Celebrity is still the issue of the day on Born Villain. The record is accompanied by a short film directed by Shia LaBeouf (yes, him from the Transformers franchise and, er, kids’ TV show Even Stevens), and a coffee table book of LaBeouf’s photographs. And then there’s the album’s bonus track, a cover of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” that features Johnny Depp, another one of Manson’s celebrity pals.
But doesn’t all of this just prove that all those issues that have been so central to the Marilyn Manson agenda – our culture of fear and self-loathing, our false consumer choices, the emptiness of other peoples’ celebrity status – have turned into something to which Manson knowingly contributes without apology? But, golly, it would be naïve of us to have expected more from him. Marilyn Manson is not an artist, otherwise he’d do a little bit more than just draw our attention to all these problems. Nor is Marilyn Manson a revolutionary, that much is obvious. It turns out that he’s just another rock star.
According to Manson, Born Villain is supposed to be a death metal album. It’s nothing of the sort. Every single track is mid-tempo. Every single track is mid-length. Every single track is middle-of-the-road – the sound of a middle-aged shock rocker long past his creative, controversial, and commercial peak trying to drag his the ball-and-chain of his career along as he trudges over the hill. Sadly, it’s all rather predictable. He just doesn’t seem scary or dangerous anymore. The song titles have all the poetic subtlety of an angry teenager’s secret diary: “The Flowers of Evil”, “Children of Cain”, “Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day”; or, in the case of “Overneath the Path of Misery”, they sound like that same teenager has started getting into prog-rock.
And the songs themselves just seem so uninspired. Opener “Hey, Cruel World” sets the template. The guitars grind, the drums give off a series of processed pops, Manson’s vocals are digitally distorted and drawled. This formula is then copied and pasted into everything that follows, from the cod sadomasochism of “Pistol Whipped” right through to closer “Breaking the Same Old Ground”, which would be amusingly self-aware if we could find a single trace of irony.
It all drags on and on to the point that it becomes difficult to tell when one song ends and another begins. It’s a shame, because then it becomes quite difficult to say anything about Born Villain, let alone to point out its peaks and troughs. The only thing that’s really noticeable about it is how overproduced it all is, and how awfully expensive it all sounds. Born Villain is very obviously Marilyn Manson’s mid-life crisis album: a garish and empty symbol of his rock star status. It’s not brutal and it’s definitely not villainous.