If you grew up as a sullen, alienated teen listening to Manson’s music in the ‘90s, The High End of Low is the type of album that will still resonate with that angsty teen that lurks beneath the surface of adulthood.
In this day and age of economic turmoil, complacency, and (snicker) swine flu, it’s hard not to find yourself listening to your angry inner child. The problems encountered in adolescence only grow more complicated over time, be it relationships or authority figures. The stakes are always higher. However, adulthood presents the problem of finding just what it is you’re flailing against and how you can inflict damage without getting fired and/or arrested. No one seems to understand that more than Marilyn Manson, who is successfully shrugging off the conventions of “maturity” and indulging in sweet, sweet loathing and attempting to hasten the destruction of the world.
On his seventh full-length studio album, everyone’s favorite cultural observer in goth greasepaint is back. Alternately sneering at and scowling upon the world from his misanthropic perch, The High End of Low heralds a return to form for Marilyn Manson. Seated at his right hand once again is his longtime partner-in-crime, bassist and songwriter, Twiggy Ramirez (née Jordie White). This time around, the debaucherous duo made it a threesome thanks to considerable contributions from musician/co-producer Chris Vrenna. Many a fan was left cold by Tim Skold’s approach to collaborative efforts with Manson on his prior two releases, the cabaret-influenced Golden Age of Grotesque and the uneven Eat Me, Drink Me chronicling both his emotional split from ex-wife, burlesque queen Dita VonTeese and his blossoming romance with actress Evan Rachel Wood.
Now, on The High End of Low, both Skold and the feminine influences are out of the picture and Manson has gone back to his roots. Regarding The High End of Low, Manson himself has stated that the album is closest to his classic-era Antichrist Superstar. Much of this may have something to do with the return of Twiggy to the family. Dare I say it and have my goth-metal privileges revoked, but there’s something fun about Twiggy’s contributions to Manson’s songs. During the Skold years, Manson’s darkly subversive lyrics were always there, but Twiggy’s quirky musical sensibilities were absent. Hearing this intangible element restored, the music comes alive again and Manson has a willing accomplice to help him merrily destroy the world. In fact, the album’s “Running to the Edge of the World” could very well be a bromance-tinged love letter from Manson to Twiggy with its mantra refrain, “We don’t seek death / We seek destruction.” Regardless of who the song is written for, it’s just the type of tune you’d expect to be played during a slow dance at the Jonestown prom after someone spiked the Kool Aid punch bowl.
It’s a good thing Manson has his BFF and collaborator in tow this time around, because from the sounds of it, the boy was seriously depressed. It’s not explicitly stated which former paramour many of the songs are attributed to, but the lady in question didn’t just break Manson’s heart and rip it out… she gave him an open-heart Cleveland Steamer. The disc’s opener, “Devour” could very well be the most depressing break-up song of all time. The lonely, plink of guitar strings being tuned give way to Manson’s soul-wrenching eruption of “And I’ll love you / If you’ll let me”, a gut-wrenching plea before sanity sets in. He turns on a dime and a few lines later, vows revenge, spitting “I will blow your heart to pieces.” In under four minutes, Manson runs an emotional gauntlet complete with spasmodic wailing that “my pain is not ashamed to repeat itself”, which raises goosebumps listening to it. Bookending the album on a similar note, the final track, “15”, perfectly illustrates the recurring cross-current of loneliness and vengeance. Expounding on his mutually exclusive and abusive relationships, Manson notes that “Leaving me alone to die / Is worse than having the guts to kill me” before adding with breathy vitriol, “You don’t know what forever feels like / … I’ll teach you about loss.”
Perhaps the greatest example of the powerful combination of lyrics and music on The High End of Low exists on the outstanding “Unkillable Monster”. The unexpectedly melodic guitar work at the song’s end sounds completely different from anything heard on a Manson album before. Lyrically, Manson skillfully weaves between the folds of glorious self-villification and sorrowful accusation hurled at some unseen entity that transformed him into the song’s title persona. And yet, there’s something all-too human about Manson’s “Unkillable Monster” who finds it hard to discern whether he’s in love or in pain. All romantic musings aside, Manson’s anger is back like Jordan, continuing its scorched earth policy against the world. “Wow” is a brilliantly scathing techno taunt to a former lover, while teenieboppers with questionable musical tastes draw ire on “Blank and White”.
Upon first listen, the album’s single “We’re from America” sounds as if it was trying too hard to retread over familiar territory. Upon further examination, it offers a reality check for the attitude and perception of the proverbial “ugly American” of the past eight years. Manson wisely realizes that it’s hard to get psyched about the Apocalypse anymore, but manages to drum up enthusiasm for depression and “the” Depression on this track, as well as the disc’s other single, “Arma-Goddamn-Mother-Fuckin-Geddon”. The title was undoubtedly meant to be shocking, but thanks to Manson, 15 years outside of Antichrist Superstar, these things are pretty much passé. The only thing shocking about it is the flashes of country that creep in thanks to the steel slide guitar that wavers throughout the song.
This isn’t the only song on the disc to possess a country feel. If Johnny Cash were alive and game for grimmer-than-usual fare, it would be easy to see him cover “Four Rusted Horses” with its jangly, acoustic chords pounding out the song’s rhythm. This sort of experimentation on The High End of Low stands alongside elements pulled from the back catalogue on songs like with “Pretty as a Swastika”, which has the same battering ram quality as the final movement of “Long Hard Road Out of Hell” with its punk piston-like pace.
While most of the album is a fine return to form, there are a few sour spots that are worthy of an eye-roll or two. “Wight Spider” doesn’t feel very memorable, nor does “I Have to Look Up Just to See Hell”. Their titles offer clever wordplay and a few lyrical gems contained within, but pale next to most of the compositions on The High End of Low. The biggest (and longest) disappointment of the album, however, is “I Want to Kill You Like They Do in the Movies”. Clocking in at an overly-ambitious nine minutes, it’s gratuitous and meandering without saying much. Unless it’s a snide, social commentary on the lack of editing in films today, Manson doesn’t accomplish anything with this piece.
Whereas most artists attempt to paint themselves as the hero of their self-penned tales, Marilyn Manson is all too willing to cast himself in the role of villain—a part he tackles with great relish, particularly on “Leave a Scar”—the musical equivalent of a sneer. Guitar and bass clang along with a bump-n’-grind feel that could be a distant cousin of “The Dope Show”. Issuing the caveat that “I should warn you that you may fuck me / But chances are / I’m gonna fuck you over”, it’s the ultimate instance of Manson reveling in his villainy, a kiss-off to former paramours and the world at large. He completely owns up to his demons, yet refuses to apologize for them or change his ways. You have to admire the man for that.